Good Friday: Indodana

LOOK: Olivewood crucifix, South Africa

Olivewood Crucifix (South Africa)
Olivewood crucifix, South Africa, 1978. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 263

LISTEN: “Indodana” (Son), traditional isiXhosa song from South Africa | Arr. Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt, adapt. André van der Merwe, 2014 | Performed by the Stellenbosch University Choir, 2014

Ngob’umthatile eh umtwana wakho 
Uhlale nathi, eh hololo helele

Indodana ka Nkulunkulu 
Bayi’bethelela, hololo helele 

Oh Baba! Baba, Baba Yehova! 
Baba, hololo helele
You took your own son
Who lived among us [wailing]

The Son of God
Was crucified [wailing]

Oh Father! Father, Father Jehovah!
Father! [wailing] 


This song so well captures the mood of mourning that characterizes Good Friday, when the Son of God was slain. “Hololo” and “helele” are wordless expressions of grief. So is the “Zjem zjem zja” sung by the basses, like heaving sobs, on the title word in verse 2. One soprano who performed this piece said that singing the “Oh’s” above the melody felt like singing tears.

“Indodana” is on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

Roundup: Historiated crosses, English ballad carol of the Crucifixion, and more

Holy Week begins Sunday. I will be publishing short daily devotional posts during that time and through the first eight days of Easter. Also: don’t forget about the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist and Eastertide Playlist! I’ve made some new song additions since last year, mixed in to preserve the narrative flow.


ART VIDEO: “The Crucifixion, c. 1200 (from Christus triumphans to Christus patiens)”: When I was a student in Florence for a semester, my first paper for my Italian history, art, and culture class traced the evolution of the painted wood-panel crucifix in late medieval Italy, from the Christus Triumphans (Triumphant Christ) type to Christus Patiens (Suffering Christ). I lived less than a five-minute walk from the Uffizi, which has in its collection a beautiful example of each—explored by Drs. Steven Zucker and Beth Harris in this short Smarthistory video. Longtime readers of the blog may recognize the latter, which I posted back in 2018.

Painted cross, Pisa (detail)
Painted cross (detail), Pisa, ca. 1180–1200. Tempera and gold leaf on wood, 277 × 231 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Inv. 432. [object record]

Zucker provides wonderful photos of both in high resolution on his Flickr page (start here and scroll right)—the full crosses and details of each apron scene—available for free noncommercial use under a Creative Commons license. And there are many other art historical images there as well!


ONLINE EXPERIENCE: “Anamnesis: Journey through the Stations of the Cross”: This year visual artist Daniel Callis and the music and liturgy collective The Many collaborated on a self-guided set of online Stations of the Cross. There are fifteen total, which are being released one at a time every morning and evening from March 30 through April 5. Each station consists of an artwork, a prayer, a song, and a written meditation that help us enter into lament.

Callis, Dan_Grief Station 1
Daniel Callis (American, 1955–), Grief Station #1, Prognosis, 2022. Ink, oil, palm ash, fiber, clay, ash, fabric, 60 × 24 × 24 in. (total work). Photo courtesy of the artist.

The artworks are by Callis, and they’re from his Stations: Resurgam series, a body of work that was just exhibited this month at Green Art Gallery at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He began the series in January 2021 in response to the death of his son, Jeremy David Callis (1980–2020). It consists of fifteen mixed-media works on paper (his process involves printing, “wounding,” stitching, etc.) and fifteen raku-fired offering bowls that incorporate, from the cooling process, copies of letters, hospital documents, and drawings from Jeremy. “They are about pain and the absurd insistent pursuit of hope,” Callis says of the series. Resurgam is Latin for “I shall rise again.”

The songs are by The Many.


BOOK EXCERPT from The Unvarnished Jesus: A Lenten Journey by Brian Zahnd: In this post from his blog, Pastor Brian Zahnd excerpts a passage from his book The Unvarnished Jesus (2019). “To interpret the meaning of the cross is more than a life’s work—in fact, it has and will remain the work of the church for millennia,” he writes. “The cross is the ever-unfolding revelation of who God is, and it cannot be summed up in a simple formula. This is the bane of tidy atonement theories that seek to reduce the cross to a single meaning. The cross is many things: It’s the pinnacle of God’s self-disclosure. It’s divine solidarity with all human suffering. It’s the shaming of the principalities and powers. It’s the point from which the satan is driven out of the world. It’s the death by which Christ conquers Death. It’s the abolition of war and violence. It’s the supreme demonstration of the love of God. It’s the re-founding of the world around an axis of love. It’s the enduring model of co-suffering love we are to follow. It’s the eternal moment in which the sin of the world is forgiven . . .” Read more.



>> “The Leaves of Life”: “The Leaves of Life,” alternatively titled “The Seven Virgins,” is a traditional English ballad carol of Christ’s passion, first set down in the nineteenth century. It is narrated by (the apostle?) Thomas, who on a fateful Friday runs into the Virgin Mary and six of her companions, who are looking for Jesus. He directs them to the hill where Jesus is being crucified (“And sit in the gallery” may be a corruption of “The city of Calvary”). The women tearfully fly to the site, and Jesus tries to console his mother from the cross before breathing his last. The song ends with Thomas imbibing a strong scent of rose and fennel as he meditates on Christ’s love. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Here the song is performed in the chapter house of Wells Cathedral in Somerset by William Parsons, founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust and author of Singing for Our Supper: Walking an English Songline from Kent to Cornwall, a book about the seven months he spent as a wandering minstrel. Parsons refers to it as a gypsy carol because Ralph Vaughan Williams collected one version of it from the Roma singer Esther Smith during his 1908–13 collecting trips that resulted in the publication, with Ella May Leather, of Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire (1920).

>> “Were You There”: This African American spiritual is performed here by Pegasis, a vocal trio of sisters—Marvelis, Rissel, and Yaina Peguero Almonte—originally from the Dominican Republic but now living in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s as if they’re the three Marys singing their testimony! The song is on their 2016 album Peace Through Praise, which they released under the name The Peguero Sisters. Their harmonies are gorgeous.


PODCAST EPISODE: “Malcolm Guite: Poems on the Passion”: In this special passion- and resurrection-themed Nomad devotional episode from 2018, Malcolm Guite reads and reflects on three of his poems, and David Benjamin Blower performs an original three-part song that he wrote in response and that has not been released elsewhere (see 4:30, 16:04, and 27:18).

Guite’s “Jesus dies on the cross,” part of his Stations of the Cross sonnet cycle, was inspired by a line from George Herbert’s poem “Prayer”: “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” And his “Easter Dawn” [previously] is based in part on a sermon by the seventeenth-century Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes. Paraphrasing Andrewes, Malcolm says, “Jesus is the gardener of Mary [Magdalene]’s heart—her heart is all rent and brown and wintery, and with one word, he makes all green again.” Beautiful! For more on the theme of Jesus as gardener, see my 2016 blog post “She mistook him for the gardener.”

The Ascent of the Cross: Christ’s Death as a Volitional Act

In the thirteenth century, a new subject emerged in painted Passion cycles in both East and West: Christ resolutely climbing a ladder to the cross. He ascends willingly, even enthusiastically, demonstrating a heroic acceptance of death. In taking those steps up onto the instrument of his martyrdom, he exercises agency. As he tells a gathered crowd in John 10:18, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down . . .” Out of love for the world, he gives himself as a sacrifice, bringing about reconciliation between God and humanity.

The iconography of the Ascent of the Cross (alternatively referred to as “Christ Mounts the Cross”) is of Byzantine origin and can be found in Macedonian and Serbian church frescoes.

Ascent of the Cross (Macedonia)
Michael Astrapas and Eutychios, Ascent of the Cross (at right), 1295. Fresco, Church of the Holy Mother of God Peribleptos (aka Church of Saint Clement), Ohrid, North Macedonia. Photo: Vera Zavaritskaya.

Ascent of the Cross (Macedonia)
Ascent of the Cross, 1298. Fresco, Church of St. Nicholas, Prilep, North Macedonia. Photo: P. S. Pavlinov.

Ascent of the Cross (St George, Staro Nagoricane)
Ascent of the Cross, 1317. Fresco, Church of St. George, Staro Nagoričane, North Macedonia.

Ascent of the Cross (St George, Polosko)
Ascent of the Cross, 1343–45. Fresco, Church of St. George, Pološko, North Macedonia.

In a fresco from the Church of St. George at Staro Nagoričane, a small Roman military detachment has just led Jesus to the site of his execution. A young enslaved Roman fixes the cross into the ground, instructed by an older slave who holds a basket of nails, while a third stands on the suppedaneum and waits to nail Jesus’s hands into place. Caiaphas, the Jewish chief priest, points to the cross, indicating to Christ to ascend it. Christ grabs hold of the rungs and climbs, while at the top left, from behind a rock, the Virgin Mary and John look on in grief.

Byzantine painting greatly influenced the Italian painters of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Many of them adopted Byzantine models, of which the Ascent of the Cross is one example.

Pacino di Bonaguida_Ascent of the Cross
Pacino di Bonaguida (Italian, Florentine, 1280–1340), Ascent of the Cross, from the picture-book Scenes from the Life of Christ and the Life of the Blessed Gerard of Villamagna, ca. 1320. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment, 9 5/8 × 6 7/8 in. (24.5 × 17.6 cm). Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, M. 643, fol. 12r.

In a Ferrarese church lunette fresco in the Benedictine nuns’ monastic complex of Sant’Antonio in Polesine, two men kneel on the cross’s patibulum as Christ mounts the ladder propped against it. He wears a translucent loincloth, emphasizing his nakedness and humiliation. Knowing Christ’s innocence, an elderly Jewish man tries to intervene to prevent the brutality, but he is restrained by soldiers. On the right, a group of Romans argues over who will get to keep Christ’s cloak, a souvenir from this regional celebrity.

Ascent of the Cross (Ferrara)
Christ Mounts the Cross on a Ladder, 14th century. Fresco, Monastery of Sant’Antonio in Polesine, Ferrara, Italy.

In some versions of the Ascent of the Cross, Jesus is pushed or pulled into position, or at least aided, by soldiers, with whom he readily cooperates. Such is the case in the earliest identified instance of the subject, from an eleventh-century Armenian Gospel-book. (Armenians were the largest non-Greek ethnicity in the Byzantine Empire.)

Ascent of the Cross (Armenian)
Ascent of the Cross, from the Vehapar Gospels, Armenia, early 11th century. Matenadaran, Yerevan, MS 10780, fol. 125v.

Art historian Thomas F. Mathews says that in the Armenian tradition, Golgotha is identified with the place where the Jewish patriarch Jacob had a vision of angels trafficking a ladder connecting heaven and earth. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven,” Jacob exclaimed, dubbing it Bethel, Hebrew for “house of God” (Gen. 28:10–22). In Armenian manuscript illuminations, Mathews argues, the subject of Christ ascending the cross, very often followed by a depiction of Christ’s dead body descending from the cross, was thus interpreted as an extension of Jacob’s vision, as by climbing up and down the ladder of the cross, Christ opened heaven’s gate.[1]

Another Armenian Gospel-book miniature of the subject, from the early fourteenth century, is particularly striking in how it shows Christ turning, mid-climb, toward the viewer, his direct gaze engaging our pity and love.

Ascent of the Cross (Gladzor Gospels)
T‘oros Taronec‘i, Ascent of the Cross, from the Gladzor Gospels, Armenia, 1300–1307. UCLA Library Special Collections, Los Angeles, Armenian MS 1, p. 283.

In some versions from Italy, Mary grabs her son around the waist, trying to prevent him from experiencing further torture. Take, for example, the panel painting by Guido da Siena that was originally part of the Madonna del Voto altarpiece in Siena’s cathedral. Her mama-bear instinct kicking in, Mary pushes away one of her son’s tormentors with one arm and with the other protectively encircles her son, unable to let him go.  

Guido da Siena_Ascent of the Cross
Guido da Siena (Italian, Sienese, 1230–1290), Ascent of the Cross, ca. 1265–74. Tempera on poplar wood, 34.5 × 46 cm. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands.

Some Christians are wary of suggesting that the Mother of God would seek to deter God’s plan, but let’s remember that, devout as she was, Mary was not superhuman. The death sentence passed against her son and the violence that followed naturally unleashed a flood of emotion in her and an impulse to resist. What mother wouldn’t do everything in her power to save her child from harm? No matter how much she believed in her son’s mission, what mother wouldn’t reach out for one last embrace, if only to prolong the inevitable?

That said, Mary’s gesture here may be one of attempting not to impede his ascent but to cover his nakedness. In the widely influential Meditations on the Life of Christ, a text that originated in early fourteenth-century Tuscany and circulated in Latin and all the major European vernaculars,[2] Mary responds in agony to Jesus’s being shamefully stripped for all to see, and she intervenes with a small mercy:

Oh what anguish this was to his mother, to see her most sweet son naked like this, standing like a lamb among these wicked wolves!

Then the mother, full of sorrow, went up close to her most sweet son and took the veil from her head and wrapped it around Lord Jesus Christ with bitter sorrow. And I do not know how she did not fall dead to the earth.[3]

Closely related to the Guido panel is one by an anonymous artist from Umbria or Tuscany that was the central panel of a portable altarpiece with two wings, possibly painted for the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi. It depicts the Ascent of the Cross—again, with the Virgin Mary interceding—above a scene of the Funeral of Saint Clare (d. 1253), a close follower of Saint Francis and the founder of the Poor Clares religious order.

Christ Mounting the Cross (Wellesley panel)
Christ Mounting the Cross and the Funeral of Saint Clare (detail), Umbria or Tuscany, 1290s. Tempera and silver leaf on panel, overall 31 1/4 × 20 3/8 in. (79.4 × 51.8 cm). Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

For the iconography of the Ascent of the Cross, art historian Anne Derbes identifies a possible literary source as Pseudo-Bede’s De meditatione passionis Christi: “Then, when the cross had been prepared, they [the people] cry: ‘Ascend, Jesus, ascend.’ O how freely He ascends, with what great love for us He bore everything, with what patience, what gentleness!”[4]

Terser references to this episode, Derbes points out, appear in Pseudo-Anselm’s Dialogus, which mentions that Christ “ascends the wood of the cross,”[5] and in Ambrose’s commentary on Luke, in which Ambrose remarks that “it was not his cross that Christ ascended, but ours,” and that Christ ascended the cross “as a victor ascends a triumphal chariot.”[6]

Derbes also notes the possible influence of the adoratio crucis (adoration of the cross) ritual, known in Jerusalem from the fourth century and in the West from the seventh or eighth, which states, “O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you climbing onto the cross.”[7]

[In the tiled gallery below, click on the image to view the caption and source URL.]

The long Latin version of the Meditations, which, from the mid-fourteenth century, postdates most of the paintings shown here, also mentions the Ascent of the Cross, perhaps itself influenced by trecento visual culture:

Now diligently behold the process of Crucifixion. Two ladders are accustomed to be placed, one on the one side, the other on the other; upon these, wicked men go up, with nails and hammers; while another ladder is placed in front, reaching to that part of the Cross where the feet are to be nailed. Contemplate now each event Our Lord may have been compelled by means of this small ladder to ascend the Cross, for He does whatsoever they bid Him, humbly, without resistance or complaint. Having reached the top of the ladder, He turns Himself round, it may be, opens His arms, and extends His Hands—so royal and beautiful—and yields Himself up to His crucifiers.

. . . Some there are who think that this was not the method of Crucifixion, i.e. by making our Lord ascend a ladder before the nailing of His Body to the Cross; but that they fastened Him to the Cross when it was laid on the ground before it was raised.[8]

Interestingly, the writer, as he does elsewhere in the manuscript, allows for the possibility that the action may have occurred in one of two ways. Actually, probably neither of the two options he describes for how Christ was nailed to the cross is accurate. Ancient historians think it most likely that Jesus was nailed to the horizontal crossbeam while it lay on the ground, which was then lifted up, his body attached, and dropped into a notch in the permanently fixed vertical post.[9]

However, the Ascent of the Cross isn’t so much meant to be a literal portrayal of what happened historically as it is an expression of the theological truth that Christ went to his death voluntarily. He was not forced onto the cross against his will. The Ascent suggests divine initiative and purpose. Even in those images where Christ is being prodded by his executioners, he does not resist. Instead, he bounds onward and upward to his chosen end.

In medieval English literature, the freedom and strength of Christ in his death is often emphasized. In the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood” from the eighth century, the cross says, “Then I saw mankind’s Lord / hasten with great zeal, as though he wanted to climb on me.”[10] In Middle English religious lyrics, which come down to us mainly through preaching manuscripts, Christ mounts the cross much like a knight does his steed, prepared for battle, but of a spiritual kind.[11]

One anomalous example of the Ascent of the Cross that I found comes from Reformation Germany. A copperplate engraving by Augustin Hirschvogel[12] shows a muscly Christ mounting the cross with three figures slung over his shoulder: a clawed, beaked, horned creature representing the devil; a skeleton representing death; and what looks like a bloated corpse, probably representing sin. The tone is triumphant, as Christ’s death defeats this formidable trio. They are nailed to the cross with him, but unlike him, never to rise.

Christ Ascending the Cross with Sin, Death, and the Devil
Augustin Hirschvogel (German, 1503–1553), Christ Ascending the Cross with Sin, Death, and the Devil, 1547. Etching, 11.8 × 14.8 cm (image) / 15.1 × 14.8 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Christ Ascending the Cross with Sin, Death, and the Devil is one of a group of over one hundred etchings of biblical scenes commissioned by the Hungarian aristocrat and politician Peter Perényi (1502–1548) for his Concordance of the Old and New Testaments, first published in Vienna by the printer Aegidius Adler in 1550. Perényi selected the scenes and wrote the letterpress captions beneath them. This one reads,

Noch mer Christus am creutz uberwand
Desshalben von Gott war selb gesandt
Und den teueffel Hell alles band
Drumb er unser erlöser ist genannt.
Luc. 23e. Corinth.5f.

On the cross, it says, Christ overcame hell and the devil, and that’s why we call him “Redeemer.” The biblical citations are to the Crucifixion account in Luke 23 and to 2 Corinthians 5:14–21, which begins, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for the one who for their sake died and was raised” (NRSV).

A follower of Martin Luther and a friend of Philip Melanchthon, Perényi was an influential protector of Protestant preachers in the kingdom of Hungary. But his shifting political allegiances got him into trouble when in 1542 he was imprisoned by Ferdinand I, a Habsburg prince, for disloyalty. It was from a prison in Vienna that he worked on his concordance project.

All these artworks of Christ ascending the cross show his bravery, dignity, and poise in the face of persecution, his heroic self-giving that wins the world’s salvation. Despite his mother’s tearful entreaties, and despite the pain he knows is coming, he remains steadfast, his eyes fixed on the prize that will be attained on Easter morning.

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1. Thomas F. Mathews and Avedis K. Sanjian, Armenian Gospel Iconography: The Tradition of the Glajor Gospel (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990), 131–32.

2. This text is traditionally attributed to a Franciscan friar known as Pseudo-Bonaventure and believed to have originated in Latin (title: Meditationes de vitae Christi), but Sarah McNamer has persuasively argued that its originator was a woman, a Poor Clare from Pisa, who wrote it in Italian for her fellow nuns sometime between 1300 and 1325. Within the next decade and a half, McNamara proposes, a Franciscan friar expanded and altered it to make it more didactic, creating first another Italian version (the “testo minore”) and then translating this into Latin to “authorize” it and make it more disseminatable. The long Latin text has become canonical but is, McNamara argues, inferior to the base text, compromising its narrative pacing and emotional impact. See Sarah NcNamer, Meditations on the Life of Christ: The Short Italian Text (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018).

3. Translated by Sarah McNamer from Oxford, Bodeleian Library MS Canonici Italian 174 (the “testo breve”), in Meditations, 141.

4. “Deinde parata cruce dicunt ei, ascende, Jesu, ascende. O quam libenter ascendit, o quanto amore ista omnia pro nobis sustinuit, o quanta patientia, o quanta mansuetudo!”(PL 94:565). Translated by Anne Derbes in Picturing the Passion in Late Medieval Italy: Narrative Painting, Franciscan Ideologies, and the Levant (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 154.

5. “Ascendit arborem crucem” (PL 159:289). Qtd. Derbes, 241n56.

6. “Non enim suam, sed nostram crucem christus ascendit” (PL 15:1923); “currum suum triumphator ascendit” (PL 15:1924). Qtd. Derbes, 242n56.

7. “Domine Ihesu Christi, adoro te in cruce ascendentem,” qtd. Derbes, 242n56, from Karl Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933), 117–19.

8. S. Bonaventure, The Life of Christ, trans. and ed. Rev. W. H. Hutchings (London: Rivingtons, 1881), 267, xiii–xiv. Sarah McNamer says that while (what she argues is) the original Meditations text describes a crucifixion method known as jacente cruce—Christ nailed to the cross as it lies prone on the ground—the Italian recension and subsequent translations and versions that came soon after privilege the erecta cruce method, in which Christ ascends a ladder to an upright cross and thus is nailed from an elevated position (Meditations, 228n126).

9. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 25; Robin Jensen, The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 10.

10. “Geseah ic þā Frēan mancynnes / efstan elne micle,⁠ þæt hē mē wolde on gestīgan.”

11. The metaphor of Christ’s cross as a horse that he bravely mounts as if for battle occurs in MS Balliol 149 (cf. MSS Magdalen 93 and Trinity Dublin 277), Nicolas Bozon’s poem “Sa sele fu trop dure, et mout l’ad anguise,” MS Bodley 649, and MS Harley 2316. See Rosemary Woolf, Art and Doctrine: Essays on Medieval Literature (London: The Hambledon Press, 1986), 113–15.

12. Hirschvogel was trained as a stained-glass painter in the workshop of his father, but when his hometown of Nuremberg accepted Luther’s Protestant teachings, the workshop lost its church commissions. Hirschvogel thus pivoted to designing maps and fortification plans and, in his final decade, making landscape etchings as part of the Danube School. Richard Manly Adams Jr., “One Acquisition, Two Great Traditions at Pitts,” Reformation Notes no. 56 (Summer 2021): 5.

Roundup: Musical Passions beyond Bach; Angola inmates enact the Passion; and more

VIDEO: “Waiting with Christ: An Artful Meditation for Holy Week”: A collaboration between Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts in Durham, North Carolina, and City Church in Cleveland, Ohio, this half-hour video from 2021 presents a small collection of scripture readings, poems, visual art, and music for Holy Week, interspersed with reflections by theologian Jeremy Begbie. The artistic selections are a spoken word performance by Paul Turner, Malcolm Guite’s sonnet “Jesus Meets His Mother,” the Adagio movement of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, the painting Riven Tree by Bruce Herman, and Bifrost Arts’ “Our Song in the Night,” performed by Salina Turner, Allison Negus, and Joel Negus [previously].


ARTICLE: “6 Musical ‘Passions’ Beyond Bach” by Josh Rodriguez: Composer, professor, and Deus Ex Musica cofounder Josh Rodriguez is an excellent classical music curator and guide. In this article he introduces us to six modern large-scale musical works about Jesus’s final week: The Passion of Yeshua by Richard Danielpour, La Pasión Según San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov, The Passion of the Christ Symphony by John Debney, Johannes-Passion by Sofia Gubaidulina, Simeron by Ivan Moody, and the St. John Passion by James MacMillan. He interweaves composer biography, musical analysis, and meaning in concise ways, with nods to music history. Stylistic influences for these diverse selections range from Byzantine chant to salsa! Audio/video excerpts are provided, such as the cued-up “¿Por qué?” from Golijov’s Pasión (see below), a movement centering on the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume (Mark 14:3–9).


PRINT SERIES: The Passion and Its Objects (after Dürer) by Marcus Rees Roberts:The Passion and Its Objects (after Dürer) is a series of etchings and monotypes by Marcus Rees Roberts. The images derive from fragments from Albrecht Dürer’s series of woodcuts The Small Passion (1511). Images of the Passion – and of the crucifixion in particular – are so embedded in Western consciousness that we forget that it is a depiction of betrayal, prejudice, and torture. In this version of the Passion by Dürer, one of several he made, small, everyday objects lie scattered within the images – a jug, pliers, a hammer, a coil of rope. Even five hundred years later, we recognise these objects as our own; we can identify with them. But in so doing, we enter the depicted space, and we become complicit in the cruelty. This is one reason why Dürer’s Small Passion is both so powerful and so uncomfortable.”

Roberts, Marcus Rees_Passion I
Marcus Rees Roberts (British, 1951–), The Passion and Its Objects (after Dürer) I, 2019. Diptych etching and aquatint with chine collé printed on Somerset Satin soft white 300gsm, each plate 29.5 × 21 cm (overall 29.5 × 42 cm). Edition of 15.


PHOTOGRAPHY SERIES: Passion Play by Deborah Luster: “There are more than 5,300 inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Nearly 4,000 of them are serving life without parole. In 2012 and 2013 the Angola Prison Drama Club staged a play unlike any other in the prison’s experience. The Life of Jesus Christ featured 70 inmates, men and women acting together for the first time—in costume, with a real camel, performing for the general public. For the untrained actors, this production held special meaning as they saw pieces of their own lives revealed in the characters they played.”

Luster, Deborah_Layla "Roach" Roberts (Inquisitor)
Layla “Roach” Roberts (Inquisitor), sentenced to LIFE, Angola Prison, Louisiana. Photograph by Deborah Luster, from the Passion Play series, 2013.

Luster, Deborah_Bobby Wallace (Jesus)
Bobby Wallace (Jesus), Angola Prison, Louisiana. Photograph by Deborah Luster, from the Passion Play series, 2013.



>> “May I Go with You” by January Lim: This Maundy Thursday song was written in 2020 in the voice of Jesus in Gethsemane, speaking to God the Father. In the first stanza, it seems to me that Jesus is asking to be taken up to heaven, like Elijah—just whisked away back to glory, and spared tomorrow’s cruelties and pain. But in the second stanza that same request seems to shift in meaning as Jesus expresses a desire to go with God’s plan and asks for the strength to follow through. The song was released on the EP Gathered Sighs (2021), put out by Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles, where Lim serves as worship arts pastor. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

>> “Calvary” (Traditional): In this excerpt from Washington National Cathedral’s 2020 Good Friday noon service, Imani-Grace Cooper performs Richard Smallwood’s arrangement of the African American spiritual “Calvary,” accompanied on piano by Victor Simonson. Wow. Chilling!

See also Imani-Grace’s performance of “Lamb of God” by Twila Paris and “Were You There” from the same service, which I queued up at those time-stamped links.

Rare iconography of Hades impaled on Golgotha

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has in its collection a Byzantine Crucifixion ivory from Constantinople with an unusual figure at the bottom: a burly, bearded man in a reclining position, being stabbed through his belly by the cross. The Greek inscription clues us in to his identity: “The Cross Implanted in the Stomach of Hades.” This is the ruler of the underworld being subdued by Christus Victor, the conquering Christ!

Crucifixion with Hades stabbed
Icon with the Crucifixion, made in Constantinople, mid-10th century. Ivory, 5 15/16 × 3 1/2 in. (15.1 × 8.9 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hades is associated with death. The New Testament writers use the word, roughly equivalent to the Hebrew Sheol, to refer to the unseen realm of the dead, where people’s souls reside between death and the general resurrection, or sometimes to the grave, the place of bodily decay.

The iconography of Hades being stabbed is unique among surviving Byzantine representations of the Crucifixion, though it is present in some depictions of the Anastasis (Resurrection), known in English as the Harrowing of Hell.

There is also an ancient literary tradition of Hades experiencing gastric troubles in response to Christ’s redemptive work—either being speared through his midsection with Jesus’s cross, or his stomach churning in nervous anticipation of Jesus’s approach. Byzantine art curator Margaret English Frazer cites several such examples in her essay “Hades Stabbed by the Cross of Christ”:

  • “With this precious weapon [the cross] Christ tore apart the voracious stomach of Hades and blocked the treacherous fully opened jaws of Satan. Seeing this, Death quaked and was terrified, and released all whom he held beginning with the first man.”—Ephrem the Syrian, “Sermo in pretiosam et vivicam crucem” (Sermon on the Precious and Life-Giving Cross)
  • In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Hades frets to Satan about Jesus’s coming to the underworld after his crucifixion: “I not long ago swallowed down one dead, Lazarus by name; and not long after, one of the living by a single word dragged him up by force out of my bowels: and I think that it was he of whom thou speakest. If, therefore, we receive him here, I am afraid lest perchance we be in danger even about the rest. For, lo, all those that I have swallowed from eternity I perceive to be in commotion, and I am pained in my belly.”
  • In the Gospel of Bartholomew, upon hearing footsteps descending the stairs to his abode, Hades says, “My belly is rent, and mine inward parts are pained: it cannot be but that God cometh hither.”
  • In a sermon among the spuria of John Chrysostom of the fifth to seventh century, the infernal serpent laments that a nail is implanted in his heart and a wooden lance pierces him, tearing him apart. (“In adorationem venerandae crucis,” Patrologia Graeca 62, col. 748)
  • Hades, to the snake: “Let us both bitterly lament,
    Since in His descent He has attacked my stomach,
    So that I vomit forth those whom I formerly devoured.
    But now lament with me, for we are despoiled of our common glory.”
    —Romanos the Melodist, Fourth Hymn of the Resurrection, trans. Marjorie Carpenter in Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine Melodist
  • Again, Hades, crying out: “I am pierced in the stomach;
    I do not digest the One whom I devoured;
    Just so, on the third day, the whale disgorged Jonas.
    Now I disgorge Christ and all of those who are Christ’s;
    Because of the race of Adam I am being chastised.”
    —Romanos the Melodist, Fifth Hymn of the Resurrection, trans. Marjorie Carpenter in Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine Melodist

But again, the context of all these passages is Christ’s descent into Hades, part of the resurrection narrative celebrated on Easter. Is there any precedent for Hades being stabbed at the moment of Christ’s death?

Frazer identifies the most likely literary inspiration for our anonymous ivory carver as Romanos the Melodist’s hymn “On the Triumph of the Cross” from the sixth century, which was sung on Good Friday in the Byzantine church. Here’s an excerpt, translated from the Greek by Marjorie Carpenter:

Pilate fixed three crosses on Golgotha,
Two for the robbers, and one for the Giver of life.
When Hades saw Him, he said to those below:
“O my priests and forces, who has fixed the nail in my heart?
A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly and I am torn apart.
I am in pain—internal pain; I have a bellyache;
My senses make my spirit quiver,
And I am forced to vomit forth
Adam and those descended from Adam, given to me by a tree.
The tree leads them back
Again into Paradise.”

Satan tries to calm Hades, but he is inconsolable in his defeat, replying,

“Run and uncover your eyes, and see
The root of the tree within my spirit;
It has gone down into my vitals,
So that like iron it will draw up Adam.”

As is common in the New Testament and early patristic writings, Romanos interprets the Crucifixion as Christ’s victory over death. Through Christ’s self-sacrifice, death is disemboweled, no longer posing a threat. The gates of eternal life with God are now opened.

As I study this tenth-century ivory, I wonder who first owned it and how it supported their faith, and I marvel that after more than a thousand years, this precious object still beckons and speaks. It is the central panel of a small triptych whose two wings are now lost. Its diminutive size—no bigger than a hand—means it was likely a personal devotional object.

The artist places the scene under a baldachin. Jesus’s arms are extended over the crossbeam and his feet rest on a suppedaneum, below which three seated soldiers cast lots for his cloak. The Virgin Mary and Saint John stand on either side in an attitude of mourning. But their tears will soon give way to rejoicing, because the cross’s wooden stake plunges decisively into the stomach of Hades, doing him in; see the blood welling up at the wound. The cross is portrayed as the weapon with which Christ wins humanity’s salvation.

This is a symbolic image, one that manifests physically the metaphysical drama playing out beneath the surface of things. Hades embodies death, the opposite of life, so his impalement represents an end to his reign of terror. Symbolism is a common tool of the religious artist for signposting the viewer toward an invisible spiritual truth, and here the artist uses it to show how Christ has, surprisingly, vanquished death by death.


Margaret English Frazer, “Hades Stabbed by the Cross of Christ,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 9 (1974): 153–61

“A quiet roar” by Veronica Zundel (poem)

Ivaniuta, Maria_Crucifixion
Mariia Bilas (Марія Білас) (née Ivaniuta) (Ukrainian, 1992–), Crucifixion, 2015. Tempera and gold leaf on canvas, 40 × 50 cm.

he lays his left hand along the beam
hand that moulded clay into fluttering birds*
hand that cupped wildflowers to learn their peace
hand that stroked the bee’s soft back and touched death’s sting

he stretches his right hand across the grain
hand that blessed a dead corpse quick
hand that smeared blind spittle into sight
hand that burgeoned bread, smoothed down the rumpled sea

he stands laborious
sagging, split
homo erectus, poor bare forked thing
hung on nails like a picture

he is not beautiful
blood sweats from him in rain

far off where we are lost, desert dry
thunder begins its quiet roar
the first drops startle us alive
the cloud no bigger
than a man’s hand

* According to a legend first recorded in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, when Jesus was a child he molded sparrows out of clay and then brought them to life. This episode is also referenced in the Qur’an 5:110.

This poem appears in Faith in Her Words: Six Centuries of Women’s Poetry, compiled by Veronica Zundel (Oxford: Lion Books, 1991). Used by permission of the author.

Veronica Zundel is a writer of Christian books, articles, and poetry, living in London. She was born in England in 1953 to Austrian refugee parents (her mother was Jewish) and graduated with a BA in English from Oxford University in 1975. She came to faith in a Baptist church as a teenager and spent time in the Church of England and the Mennonite Church before joining the Methodist congregation she worships with now. Her books include Crying for the Light: Bible Readings and Reflections for Living with Depression, Everything I Know about God I’ve Learned from Being a Parent, and The Lion Book of Famous Prayers, and she contributes regularly to periodicals such as New Daylight and Woman Alive.

Lenten Art Videos from Loyola Press

Lent begins on Wednesday, February 22. I won’t be doing daily Lenten posts like I did last year, though I will be sharing seasonal content once or twice a week. If you want a set of new daily art-driven devotions that are freely accessible online, I’d encourage you to follow The Lent Project, run by the Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts at Biola University; each day features a scripture passage, a poem, a visual artwork, a piece of music, and a written reflection. I’d also direct you to my Lent Playlist (new additions at bottom) and Holy Week Playlist on Spotify.

Spitzweg, Carl_Ash Wednesday
Carl Spitzweg (German, 1808–1885), Ash Wednesday, 1860. Oil on canvas, 21 × 14 cm. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.

Another spiritual formation resource for Lent is the following series of Arts & Faith videos from Loyola Press, made in 2014–16. Each video features a three-minute commentary by Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome on a historical artwork, chosen based on one of that day’s/week’s scripture readings from the Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary, which is currently in year A. Zsupan-Jerome is the director of ministry formation and field education at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. Here she has crafted a “visual prayer experience” inspired by the Ignatian imagination. In his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), encourages Christians to apply the senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste to our reading of and meditation on the New Testament, imagining ourselves as present in the Gospel scenes.

Go to the “Arts & Faith: Lent” homepage, or see below, where the link on each artwork title will take you to a new tab where the corresponding video commentary is hosted on the Loyola website. I’ve included sample embeds of a few of the videos below.  

Arts & Faith: Lent, Cycle A

> ASH WEDNESDAY: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559

> WEEK 1: Ivan Kramskoi, Christ in the Desert, 1872

> WEEK 2: Raphael, Transfiguration, 1518–20

> WEEK 3: St. Photini (The Woman at the Well) (Orthodox icon)

> WEEK 4: El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind, ca. 1567

> WEEK 5: János Vaszary, Resuscitation of Lazarus, 1912

> PALM SUNDAY: Giotto di Bondone, Entry into Jerusalem, ca. 1305

> HOLY THURSDAY: Bernhard Strigel, Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, ca. 1520

> GOOD FRIDAY: Titian, Christ and the Good Thief, ca. 1566

> HOLY SATURDAY: Triumph of the Cross, 12th century, apse mosaic from the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome

> EASTER SUNDAY: Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, 1463

Arts & Faith: Lent, Cycle B

> ASH WEDNESDAY: Carl Spitzweg, Ash Wednesday, 1860

> WEEK 1: The Temptation of Christ, 12th century, Basilica of St. Mark, Venice

> WEEK 2: Francesco Zuccarelli, Landscape with the Transfiguration of Christ, 1788

> WEEK 3: Quentin Matsys, Jesus Chasing the Merchants from the Temple, 16th century

> WEEK 4: James Tissot, Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus, 1886–94

> WEEK 5: Vincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

> PALM SUNDAY: Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610

> HOLY THURSDAY: Tintoretto, Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, 1548–49

> GOOD FRIDAY: Master of the Karlsruhe Passion, The Capture of Christ, ca. 1450

> HOLY SATURDAY: Jacopo di Cione, The Three Marys at the Sepulchre, detail from the San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece, 1370–71

> EASTER SUNDAY: Eugène Burnand, The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection, 1898

Arts & Faith: Lent, Cycle C

> ASH WEDNESDAY: John Berney Crome, Great Gale at Yarmouth on Ash Wednesday, 1836

> WEEK 1: Limbourg Brothers, The Temptation of Christ, 1411–16

> WEEK 2: Lorenzo Lotto, The Transfiguration of Christ, ca. 1511

> WEEK 3: Alexey Pismenny, Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree, 2008

> WEEK 4: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1668

> WEEK 5: Palma il Vecchio, Christ and the Adulteress, ca. 1525–28

> PALM SUNDAY: Wilhelm Morgner, Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, 1912

> HOLY THURSDAY: Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples, ca. 1210, Basilica of St. Mark, Venice

> GOOD FRIDAY: Andrea Mantegna, The Dead Christ (Lamentation of Christ), 1475–78

> HOLY SATURDAY: The Women at the Tomb; The Descent into Limbo, Armenia, 1386

> EASTER SUNDAY: Redemption Window (detail), Corona Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral, ca. 1200–1207

A theological reading of Rodríguez Calero’s acrollages

Last month when I was driving home to Maryland from Connecticut, I decided to stop for an hour or two at the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey. I wanted to see a monumental Nativity painting in their collection by Joseph Stella. It didn’t end up being on display, but I did find many other compelling works. Chief among them was the acrollage painting Christ of the Christians by Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) artist Rodríguez Calero, a variation on the Crucifixion that portrays the violence of the cross in the abstract.

Rodriguez Calero_Christ of the Christians
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Christ of the Christians, 1995. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 36 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey. All photos (except the two details that follow) courtesy of the artist.

Made with acrylic paint, rice paper, imaged paper, colored glazes, and gold leaf, the work is heavily layered. Its focal point is the direct gaze of a young Black man, his head framed by a shaded gray box and haloed in gold. His face is cut off just above the mouth. The Word is muted.

This figure fragment is at the top terminal of a rough-edged cruciform that is rendered in a harsh tar-black embedded with deep splotches of red. Body merges with cross—blood, wood, and flesh.

The whole background is covered in pinks and reds. The color pools and splatters and permeates, representing the pouring out of life.

Standing upright alongside the cross are three stenciled palm branches, alluding to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem just five days earlier. Palm branches were a symbol of triumph in ancient Judaism, hence their being waved to greet the Christ, the “Anointed One,” at the city gate. (Jesus’s followers anticipated a political victory over Rome, little knowing that God had other plans.) In Christian iconography palm branches are associated with martyrdom; in portraits and heavenscapes they are held by saints who met an early end because of their spiritual convictions, just like their Lord.

Their presence in this scene can be read on the one hand as an indictment of human fickleness (lauding Jesus as savior one day, crucifying him the next) and on the other as an assertion of triumph through the unlikely means of death on a cross.

The work can also be read through the lens of Black suffering and liberation. The late Christian theologian James Cone writes about such themes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a landmark book published in 2013, anticipating the Black Lives Matter movement. Cone explains how powerful a symbol the cross has historically been to Black American communities who face racial terror, violence, and oppression. They see in the Crucifixion, in addition to its spiritual implications, a demonstration of God’s solidarity with the oppressed, and hope on the other side. “I’m with you in your suffering,” says the God who hangs on a tree at the behest of a mob, “and death will not have the final word.”

Cone describes the thousands of lynchings of Black men, women, and children in the US as “recrucifixions”—the killing of sons and daughters of God. Two decades earlier, Jamaican American artist Renee Cox made the same connection in her photographic collage It Shall Be Named, just one in a line of artistic works to do so, going as far back as the Harlem Renaissance. Calero’s Christ of the Christians contributes to this tradition.

The gaze of the Christ in her piece is arresting. It confronts. It asserts the sacred humanity of its wearer, despite attempts to blot it out.

Christ of the Christians (detail)

However, the artist tells me that for her, Christ of the Christians is about sacrifice, not violence, racial or otherwise. The man in the painting is the “people’s Messiah,” she says, “the anointed Savior to humankind who was sent to save all from the pain, darkness, and injustices that we see on a regular basis.” The cross is “willful humility, the culmination of prophecy, and the fulfillment of promises,” and the crown is heavenly reward. The trinity of branches represents hope.

One of the features that most struck me about this piece is its raised and varied textures, a hallmark all across the artist’s larger body of work. Calero coined the term “acrollage” to describe her mixed-media technique in which she uses an acrylic emulsifier to transfer collaged images (from found elements or her own photographs) onto painted canvas, adding further embellishments with gold leaf, stenciled patterns, and rice paper. This technique of layering materials, producing veils, suggests a theme of hiddenness and revelation.

Rodríguez Calero, or RoCa for short, was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1959 and moved to Brooklyn when she was a year old. She returned to Puerto Rico after high school to study at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, under master artist Lorenzo Homar, who specialized in printmaking. Then she returned to New York for additional training in painting and collage under artist Leo Manso. She currently resides in New York and New Jersey.

Calero’s work merges Catholic iconography and hip-hop culture, drawing her personal community into the visual lexicon of the sacred. Raised Catholic, she was influenced from an early age by religious imagery at church and school. She brings this influence to bear in her artistic work while also integrating and reflecting the multiracial, multiethnic, urban environment she grew up in. “My inspiration really comes from just being in the neighborhood . . . the people walking the streets,” she says.

Alejandro Anreus, art historian and curator of the major 2015 exhibition Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter-Day Santos at El Museo del Barrio in New York, describes the Nuyorican art aesthetic that was just getting off the ground while Calero studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1976 to 1982:

Starting before 1970—crystalizing possibly with the foundation of the Taller Boricua in New York City—and emerging and developing throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, a specific aesthetic that can be defined as Nuyorican came into being. The aesthetic of New York Puerto Rican art was a diverse fusion of abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction, surrealism and social realism, as well as assemblage and constructions incorporating cultural and ethnic icons. The ethnic and cultural icons reflected several thematic preoccupations, which included Taino and Afro-Hispano imagery, depictions of barrio life, a popular, even populist Catholicism, and the belief that everyone, particularly the poor and marginalized of the neighborhoods, has dignity and inner worth regardless of social status. [exhibition catalog, p. 23]

The Christian doctrine of the imago Dei—that all human beings bear God’s image—is a central theme in Calero’s work. In His Image even adopts this theological language from the book of Genesis in its title, reminding us that God created each and every person with intrinsic and objective value, a reflection of his own divine self.

Rodriguez Calero_In His Image
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), In His Image, 1994. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

The piece shows a Black man dressed in a coat and beanie looking pensive and forlorn, his eyes downcast. Rectilinear pieces of teal-blue handmade paper form a cross behind him, and the outline of a manhole cover labeled “PUBLIC SERVICE” is superimposed over his face, doubling as a halo. In Christian art the halo signifies the light of Christ shining around and through a person, and Calero often adopts that device to underscore the sacred humanity of her subjects.

But the cross-hatching of this round form across the man’s face gives the impression of prison bars. Is he headed to prison, or is that destination merely what others, those with shallow or skewed vision, see when they look at him? Maybe he feels imprisoned by his circumstances. Or perhaps he is experiencing some kind of mental captivity. Whatever the nature of the confinement, those bars need to be broken. God wants every human being to be free and flourishing.

Rodriguez Calero_El Hijo de Dios
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), El Hijo de Dios, 1995. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

The youth in El Hijo de Dios also shines forth God’s image. He looks straight out at the viewer from under his red Karl Kani sweatshirt hood, with a softness and a self-awareness that evoke empathy. A gilded pattern of crosses in diamonds cuts across the middle third of the acrollage, and a dot-rimmed semicircle, a halo fragment, seems to embrace the boy. The delicacy of this intervention over the thick, heavy folds of the cotton sportswear creates an intriguing mix.

To the boy’s right is a collaged face of a male in profile that looks like it could have been taken out of a Picasso painting. He could be an extension of the primary figure, his face set on a path. Or he could be someone who is at cross-purposes with him, as they are oriented at a ninety-degree angle from each other.

Translated “The Son of God,” the title of this acrollage could refer to Jesus Christ, who bears this title in a special sense, as the only begotten of God the Father. The man does seem to embody the vulnerability and determination that characterize Christ in his passion. Alternatively, it could refer to a child of God more generally, as the Spanish hijo is not necessarily male-specific. The particular and the universal are both at play here. We are all God’s children (Acts 17:28–29), equally and eternally beloved.

Rodriguez Calero_Cruz de Loisaida
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Cruz de Loisaida, 1994. Acrollage on canvas, 64 × 42 in.

God’s love reaches especially into places of darkness, even though we don’t always feel it. In Cruz de Loisaida, our eyes are drawn to a monochrome found image of a hand injecting heroin into an arm. This fragment forms part of an abstracted cross, that archetypal symbol of deep suffering. The title, which translates to “Cross of Loisaida,” references a Lower East Side neighborhood with a strong Puerto Rican heritage. The piece laments the pain and anguish of drug addiction and, the artist says, the burdens forced on the Puerto Rican community by the government (“we are the sacrificial lambs”). Red pigment spills forth from the arm, evoking blood.

Rodriguez Calero_Crowned with Thorns
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Crowned with Thorns, 1999. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

Another acrollage that alludes to Christ’s passion is Crowned with Thorns, which is dominated by a large orange halo filled with linear and organic designs and cut out narrowly to reveal the face of a Black man. This headpiece is not obviously a crown of suffering; instead, it seems to convey an unironic air of royalty. It contains palm branches and irradiating gold lines that branch out like the veins of a leaf. And it smolders like fire. Could this be I AM speaking from the burning bush? The lush floral patterns, the Voice abloom?

By virtue of its historical associations, the title connects the man to Christ. With his hands he touches his Sacred Heart.

Rodriguez Calero_The Chosen
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), The Chosen, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 20 × 16 in.

One piece that appropriates unmistakable imagery of Christ is The Chosen: it contains a fragment of a Dutch Renaissance painting in the National Gallery of Christ crowned with thorns. Calero has cropped a detail of the gnarly crown piercing (a Caucasian) Christ’s forehead and collaged it with the face of a Latino man and the locs of a third (presumably a Black man). Her multiracial Jesus is nimbed twice over and emerges as if from a behind gold curtain, his brown eyes holding our gaze. He is surrounded by black-ink prints of flowers and crosses and flanked, as in Christ of the Christians, by golden palm branches. Droplets of red paint are splattered about his face and torso, one resting prominently on his upper right cheek like a tear.

Like Jesus, the Virgin Mary, his mother, is a major religious figure in Puerto Rican culture, and Calero references her in several of her artworks. Ángel y Maria depicts the moment of Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son (Luke 1:26–38).

Rodriguez Calero_Angel y Maria
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Ángel y María, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 36 in.

It’s a stunning image, bringing new life to a subject that has been painted hundreds of thousands of times over the course of history, starting with the ancient Roman catacombs. In Calero’s take, Mary is portrayed as a beautiful young woman of African descent who sits in profile, contemplating the gravity of what has just been asked of her. She holds a bouquet of flowers to her chest—perhaps she was in the midst of picking or arranging them when Gabriel arrived.

Gabriel stands in formality, cognizant of the weight of his message, patiently awaiting a response. His body is rendered in a wash of colors that blend into one another, producing an ethereal look.

Mary’s lips are parted, speaking her yes.

“The theme is love,” Calero told me. “The flowers are a representation of the blessing already inside.”

In the gospel story, this supernatural encounter results in a miraculous pregnancy, pictured in Calero’s La Madonna Negra (The Black Madonna). The image is of the Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Parturition) type—that is, the pregnant Mary. We don’t often see Mary’s bare belly in all its pregnant glory, but here we are given a glimpse and reminded of the bodiliness of the Incarnation. We can even see the linea nigra extending across her bellybutton!

Rodriguez Calero_La Madonna Negra
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), La Madonna Negra, 2007. Acrollage on canvas, 54 × 24 in.

Calero’s Afro-Latina Madonna has two sets of arms. With one, she cradles her third-trimester baby bump and clenches the veil near her face, and the other she extends outward in a gesture of giving, offering the fruit of her womb for the life of the world (notice the printed impression of a fetus in her upper left hand). I love how these multiple gestures capture the conflicting instincts she must have felt—on the one hand, to keep the child to herself, to protect him from harm, and on the other, knowing her ministry is to support his, to share him with everyone. I see both Mary’s fear and her surrender in this image; her very human “What if I’m not ready for this?” and her “Welcome; come, receive.”

Rodriguez Calero_Virgen Maria
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Virgen María, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 34 in. Collection of María Domínguéz-Morales and Juan M. Morales.

There’s also a hybridity in Virgen María, which shows a woman whose face is an amalgam of “every woman,” says the artist. Strong and confident, this Mary takes up space. Streaks of red paint cut across her torso like cords—but she spreads her arms, breaking what binds her. The bottom half of the canvas consists of blues and reds, Mary’s traditional colors, while the top half is gold, signifying the light of God.

“Mary, for me, has always been pictured as passive, and dressed in blue,” Calero told me. “Think about God in heaven, searching the world for the perfect woman to bear his Son. Now, in that state of mind, I thought Mary was chosen for her beauty, strength, compassion, intellect, and sexiness, and must represent all women, hence my Virgen María.”

Just as Calero often composites people of different races and ethnicities, she also occasionally mixes genders, as in Divine Prophet.

Rodriguez Calero_Divine Prophet
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Divine Prophet, 2012. Acrollage on canvas, 54 × 36 in.

This prophet’s face is made up of three collaged elements. A male with long hair and closely cropped facial hair forms the base, but the two eyes, underlined in blue shadow, are clearly a woman’s. And a mystical third eye is patched onto the forehead.

In Eastern spirituality, the third eye, also called the inner eye, provides perception beyond ordinary sight. The prophet, for example, sees visions of a reality that is presently invisible but that will one day be made manifest. The third eye symbolizes a state of enlightenment.

The prophet in this piece could be Jesus, or an Old Testament seer, or a prophet from another faith tradition. If the former, it’s interesting to consider how male and female are both contained in the Godhead, per Genesis 1:27. Although the second person of the Trinity incarnated as a male, there’s a long tradition of ascribing feminine attributes to Christ, from Clement to Ephrem to Anselm to Marguerite d’Oingt to Julian of Norwich. Christ is our Mother, they say, who labors to bring us to birth and feeds us at his breast. Moreover, the biblical book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman, and that woman is associated with Christ.

Centuries of European religious art and its mass-produced derivatives have harnessed the popular imagination to a narrow view of what the sacred looks like. Because of this conditioning through images, most people all over the world, not just in the West, conceive of Jesus, Mary, and the saints—those due honor—as white. Calero challenges that conception, not erasing whites but broadening the tent of sacred imagery to encompass people of color as well.

Most of her “saints” are not historical. They’re ordinary folks from New York’s barrios, or from other US cities—and from today. With their strong frontal poses, direct gazes, and haloes, they reflect the dignified, divine image–bearing status of those whom traditional Christian iconography has tended to exclude.

“Her saints—santos—are latter day and among us, her martyrs are our contemporaries,” says Alejandro Anreus. “They all live and struggle in an urban world filled with tension, even violence, as well as humor, yet open to epiphanies, where miracles can happen.” And, he continues, “her representations of Jesus Christ become all of us, as if reflecting the variety of humanity redeemed by Christ.”

(Regarding Anreus’s crucial last point: I articulated some of my thoughts on the matter a few years ago in this Instagram post.)

Black and brown bodies are beautiful and good, bearing the imprint of God their Creator. Rodríguez Calero helps us see and celebrate that. Bringing her cultural heritage to the fore, she cuts and combines, mixes and matches, contemplates, plays, and intuits, constructing affirming figure-based images of flesh and spirit that, while borrowing Christian visual tropes, are not tethered to Christianity but rather can live and move beyond an orthodox framework.

To learn more about Calero’s art training, her oeuvre, and collage as an art form, see the catalog for her retrospective (written in English and Spanish). You can also visit her website,

Roundup: Afro-Atlantic Histories, upcoming events, and more

EXHIBITION: Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, April 10–July 17, 2022: There are still two more weeks to catch this excellent exhibition in the US capital, which I saw in June, before it travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (December 11, 2022–April 30, 2023) and the Dallas Museum of Art (dates TBA). “For centuries, artists have told and retold the complex histories of the African Diaspora. Explore this enduring legacy in the exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories, which takes an in-depth look at the historical experiences and cultural formations of Black and African people since the 17th century. More than 130 powerful works of art, including paintings, sculpture, photographs, and time-based media by artists from Africa, Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean, bring these narratives to life.”

I wish I had more time to devote to it here before it wraps, as there are so many compelling artworks, but instead let me just share a two-minute video tour, followed by a lecture from April 10, which both provide a good overview:

The exhibition is divided into six sections: Maps and Margins, Enslavements and Emancipations, Everyday Lives, Rites and Rhythms, Portraits, and Resistances and Activisms. Kanitra Fletcher, associate curator of African American and Afro-Diasporic art at the National Gallery of Art, says in her talk,

The word histories in the title indicates the plurality of the narratives represented in the exhibition. They are fictional and nonfictional, mythical and factual. As a framework to coalesce narratives that have been left aside at the margins and forgotten, Afro-Atlantic Histories is open, plural, diverse, and inclusive, refusing the canon of traditional art history. This show resists the idea of a definitive history or a “grand narrative” of the Diaspora and presents diverse accounts of the past that challenge long-established hierarchies and forges new questions and connections that show how complex and intertwined are all of our histories.

Here’s an artwork that isn’t included in either of the above videos and that was new to me:

Araujo, Octavio_Slum Christ
Octávio Araújo (Brazilian, 1926–2015), Cristo favelado (Slum Christ), 1950. Oil on canvas, 64 × 53 cm. Collection of the Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Afro-Brasileiros (IPEAFRO), Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones, at Afro-Atlantic Histories at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, June 2022.

Artist Octávio Araújo entered this painting in the Black Christ contest held in 1955 by the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) in Rio de Janeiro (I mentioned this contest previously in relation to another submission, a painting by Djanira da Motta e Silva). It shows Christ crucified in a Brazilian favela, his Roman tormentors replaced with military police officers, perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence against the nation’s Black people.


ONLINE COURSE: “Theology and the Arts,” with Jason Goroncy, Rod Pattenden, and guest artists, September 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 and October 21, 2022: Whitley College, a teaching college of the University of Divinity outside Melbourne, is offering a seven-day intensive online course on theology and the arts this fall (description below), taught by the coeditors of the new book Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology. Registration is open to anyone, but participants will need to be available to engage live online from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (Melbourne time) on each of the scheduled days, for lectures, discussions, and other online activities, such as “meet the artist,” gallery visits, interviews, and student presentations. The cost to audit the course is AUD $500 (~ USD $343). There’s also an option to receive academic credit. Professor Goroncy writes,

When, in 1741, George Frideric Handel completed writing the Hallelujah Chorus for his oratorio Messiah, he reportedly told his servant: ‘I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself [sic] seated on His throne, with His Company of Angels’. More recently, the Australian musician Nick Cave described how the gods are closely associated with the flight of the imagination. Both musicians had a sense, each in their own way, of how closely related are the arts and theological work.

Theology and art are often considered separate expressions of human activity, but are they? How might they relate? What influence do they have on one another, and how might such inform our understanding of faith, of the human condition, of the creature’s vocation, and maybe even of God?

Whitley College is offering a unit of study to explore such questions. ‘Theology and the Arts’ expands traditional views of theology into the world of the arts in a way that both delights and challenges. It will be delivered online by Jason Goroncy and Rod Pattenden, together with a host of guest artists, including Emmanuel GaribayJulie PerrinDoug PurnellTrish WattsPaul MitchellRebekah Pryor, and Libby Byrne.

The registration deadline is July 15—but if there are still open spots available, it’s possible you could get in after that date. Email Dorothy Morgan at for an application form and more information.


SYMPOSIUM: “Humanity Redeemed: The Theological Vision of Georges Rouault,” September 23–24, 2022, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC: I’m considering attending! The early-bird rate, good through July 23, is $80 for the general public and includes a Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. “Georges Rouault (1871–1958) was unique among French modernist artists due to his Christian commitment and its influence on his work. The theological vision unveiled through his art is honest and complex, one that reflects the changing climate and tumultuous events of the early twentieth century. In doing so, Rouault showed the possibility of salvation and hope within the inexplicable suffering and mundane realities of human life. His close friend Jacques Maritain identified this as ‘the art of humanity redeemed.’

“This symposium will gather teachers, pastors, artists, ministry leaders, and others to reflect on the theological vision of Georges Rouault and his ongoing impact. Prominent scholars and practitioners with expertise in theology, art history, philosophy, therapy, and community leadership will be offering papers and leading the discussion. One of the speakers, Philippe Rouault, is the great grandson of Georges Rouault and will be providing a personal introduction to his life, work, and family. In addition, several artists will present new work inspired by Rouault, which will both enrich our experience together and show the ongoing generativity of Rouault’s vision and style.”

Rouault, Georges_Lord, it is you, I know you
Georges Rouault (French, 1871–1958), Seigneur, c’est vous, je vous reconnais [Lord, it is you, I know you], plate 32 from the Miserere et Guerre series, 1948. Aquatint, roulette, drypoint over heliogravure on paper, 57.4 × 44.9 cm (plate). Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.


SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: July 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: Includes a thirteenth-century antiphon for the Holy Spirit by Hildegard of Bingen (“Love abounds in all . . .”); a Luganda praise song for children’s choir; an excerpt from an Orthodox Vespers service in the Yup’ik language from Kodiak, Alaska; a gospel-style setting of Psalm 23; and more. Below are live recordings on YouTube of a few songs from the list: a cover by Amir Darzi and Lital Regev of “Long, Long, Long” from the Beatles’ White Album, which songwriter George Harrison said addresses God; “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” by gospel-blues husband-wife duo The War and Treaty; and “Here in the Vineyard of My Lord,” a Primitive Baptist hymn compiled in The Good Old Songs (1913) and performed by Americana/folk music duo Anna & Elizabeth.

Book Review: Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just by Claude Atcho

“One of the best ways to listen to Black voices is to attend to Black stories, specifically the enduring ones captured in classic African American literature,” writes pastor-theologian and former English professor Claude Atcho in the opening paragraph of Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just.

Such great cover art and design by Octavia Ink!

Published last month by Brazos Press, the book consists of ten chapters, each one built around a theologically charged word or concept (such as “sin,” “image of God,” or “lament”) and a twentieth-century novel or poem(s) by a Black author that is then engaged through that lens. A potential danger with this approach is that the interpretations in either direction could be forced to fit into a box, but this turned out not to be the case at all. Reading Black Books is a two-way, mutually enriching exchange between theology and literature, one that is expansive rather than limiting and that takes each discipline seriously on its own terms.

Combining literary analysis and theological reflection, Atcho shows how “God’s truth addresses Black experience and how Black experience, as shown in the literature of our great writers, can prod readers from all backgrounds toward sharper theological thinking and more faithful living” (1). We are invited to inhabit the experiences of various characters and poetic voices and to be transformed as a result. As a middle-class white woman living in a Maryland suburb, I acknowledge that I move about the world with a very different set of experiences than those of people of color. With pastoral sensitivity but also directness, Atcho helps me enter into America’s racial narrative—and the narrative of the gospel!—from a different vantage point. This book is for Christians of any race who desire to be enlarged by story and to live more fully into the liberative arc of scripture.

Atcho provides enough context for each book—introducing us to characters, rehearsing relevant plot points, and highlighting specific scenes, often including quoted excerpts—that you don’t have to have read the work previously to benefit from his commentary. The book does contain spoilers, as all serious literary criticism almost inevitably will. But literature is way more than plot, and readers are encouraged to then engage with the primary texts in full on their own, equipped with frames for thinking about them and open to surprises.

I have attempted to come to this book about books as a guide who integrates my affections: my love for these stories, my love for what they say about Black experience in both trials and triumphs, and my love for Jesus and his kingdom.

Claude Atcho, p. 7

Chapter 1 examines the question “What does it mean to live as an image bearer when other image bearers try to limit your existence?” The protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (not to be confused with H. G. Wells’s sci-fi novel The Invisible Man) is not physically invisible; rather, he is rendered invisible by others’ refusal to see him. Atcho discusses the need for white sight—our warped “inner eyes”—to be redeemed.

Chapter 2 explores how systemic sin exacerbates personal sin through the controversial character of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a Black man from 1930s Chicago who commits two murders (the first one accidental). Is Bigger a victim or a perpetrator? The question is too simplistic. Bigger is both trapped by Sin and an agent of Sin, Atcho says. Atcho’s explication of Sin with a capital S and sin, little s, is sophisticated and illuminates for me broader discussions going on in contemporary culture. Sin is not just personally experienced and personally enacted; it is also a dominating force that’s been set loose in our world and that has become embedded in systems.

The focus of chapter 3 is James Baldwin’s semiautobiographical debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, “a critical generational portrait of the toxic Christian practice that emerges from belief in a loveless God” (40). Baldwin gestures toward true religion through negation—by presenting the character of Gabriel, the protagonist’s minister stepfather, as a promiscuous and abusive binge drinker with a lust for power.  

Chapter 4 visits “Christ Recrucified” and the nine-hundred-line “The Black Christ” (read the first stanza here) by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, unpacking the picture they paint of a Jesus who suffers for, like, and with us. Published in the 1920s, both poems compare the crucified Christ to a lynched Black man.

In chapter 5 Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, a folkloric retelling of the book of Exodus, opens up a quest into the doctrine of salvation. Atcho discusses salvation from and to, which story and script forms us most (the old empire or the coming kingdom?), the significance of the promised land, and Christian social concern as a biblical imperative.

The deliverance of the exodus elides the false dichotomy of a truncated salvation. Hurston’s Moses points in the same direction—toward imagining a fully orbed salvation, as did our enslaved ancestors: revelation and liberation.

Is it our attention, then, to be fixed on the sin of slavery or our slavery to sin? Personal piety in the power of the Spirit or social change in Jesus’s name? Liberation or revelation? In the exodus, the Lord frees his people so that they might exist in freedom for him. It is liberation through revelation and atonement. God’s revelation (Exod. 9:4, 16, 29; 10:1–2; 11:7; 14:4), the necessity of atonement (13:13, 15), the urgency of liberation (2:23–25), and the subsequent call to holiness (31:13; Lev. 20:8) cannot be isolated. In the exodus, each motif exists in relation, forming the full melody of salvation. The song of salvation is not played in only one key. The contextual pressures of human experience can force us, understandably at times, to prize piety or liberation when truly salvation expands and contains both—and more. (84–85)

Nella Larsen’s Passing—which was adapted into an acclaimed film last year—is the subject of chapter 6, on racism. The novella delves into the psyches of two light-skinned Black women in 1920s Harlem, one of whom passes for white in all settings as a means of survival, and the other of whom does so only when convenient. Atcho talks about the need to combat colorism with affirmation (e.g., “Black is beautiful”), with denial, and through the flesh of Christ.

Chapter 7 spotlights Beloved, a gothic novel by Toni Morrison that combines the historical and the supernatural to tell the story of a devoted mother named Sethe who is seeking freedom from enslavement. At one point she escapes with her children, but when the authorities find them she kills her two-year-old daughter (who is unnamed in the novel and referred to as “Beloved,” the sole word on her tombstone) rather than relinquish her to a life of slavery. Sethe is ultimately able to get away to an Ohio farmhouse, which becomes haunted by Beloved’s ghost.

Atcho discusses the traumas of enslavement that continue to compound and haunt the body, mind, and soul even after one becomes “free”; the need for righteous rage; enfleshment and bodily liturgy; chattel slavery’s theft of the mother-child relationship; memory as a muscle that needs to be exercised transparently, communally, and redemptively; new creation and anticreation; and exorcism, rescue.

One of the most compelling characters in the novel is Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. A shepherdess of bodies and souls, she creates a new space in the woods near the farmhouse where she enacts weekly liturgies of healing. She directs her people, in Atcho’s words, “to move and be in the sacred humanity that they are and that has so viciously been attacked by those who enslaved and debased them” (117). A key passage in Beloved describes this communal gathering:

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.

“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. . . .

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh . . .”

Baby Suggs then goes on to list various parts of the body—eyes, skin, hands, mouth, neck, liver, heart—contrasting what “yonder” men do to those parts (gouge, flay, chop, beat, hang, expose and feed to hogs) with each part’s innate belovedness. Atcho’s comments on this passage—a passage that has stuck with me ever since I first read the novel some fifteen years ago—are among the best in the book.

Chapter 8 is on the theme of lament, and it considers that biblical practice in relation to the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” by W. E. B. Du Bois while also looking at the Psalms and the cross. “There is . . . power in lament that names injustice for what it is,” Atcho writes. “By naming it as such and placing it before God as counter to his moral will, lament teaches us to make no peace with injustice or oppression” (137). Bearing true witness against evil, the poem was written in response to the three-day reign of racial terror that white men unleashed on a Black community in Atlanta in September 1906, killing, maiming, and destroying homes and businesses. It opens, “O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days— / Hear us, good Lord!

Chapter 9 takes a look at another novel by Richard Wright, The Man Who Lived Underground, published for the first time last year, sixty-one years after the author’s death. (Publishers rejected it during Wright’s lifetime.) It follows Fred Daniels, a Black man who, after being picked up by police and relentlessly tortured, confesses to a double murder that he did not commit, then flees into the city’s sewer system. “The underground” confers on him a new knowledge of the world’s foundations of falsehood and injustice. At the end, he meets his demise.

To imagine a more just world, one must reckon with the world that is.

Claude Atcho, p. 145

Even though the novel promotes a worldview that is bleak and fatalistic, reading it can still be constructive, Atcho says; as Christians, we carry our hope to bleak texts. What would it look like to see this senseless world reconfigured into wholeness and justice? Atcho calls us to action, away from discrimination, violence, and power abuse and toward the pursuit of justice for all people on earth as it is in heaven.  

It’s fitting that the last chapter centers on hope, particularly as expressed through Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People.” Atcho describes the poem as “a living history, an ode, an exhortation, a lament, a prayer” that “embodies the fiery passion of a communal hope, a bond of persons and destiny” (160, 166). While the majority of the poem addresses Walker’s Black kin, at the end she expands “my people” to embrace all of humanity, “all the adams and eves.”


Throughout Atcho’s book we see the legacies of racial oppression in America—how it manifests today. Though the most recent of the featured literary works is from 1989, they all speak into our current moment. I appreciate how Atcho defines terms that show up a lot in public discourse, such as liberation and justice, comparing cultural definitions with biblical ones. But he leads with story. While in the public square our tendency is often to arm ourselves with arguments to bolster our views and defend against attacks, story has a way of disarming us. Abstract concepts become incarnate in the lives of characters. Literature can teach us the discipline of listening and can develop our empathy and understanding. It may prompt us to assess our own prejudices or complicities and impel us to repentance and real change.

Reading Black Books demonstrates the power of great literature to form us spiritually, regardless of the faith commitments of its author. Atcho presumes no theological agenda on the part of the writers, but rather chooses to read these works theologically—which can unlock more nuanced interpretations or deepened meaning. Applying a theological framework, Atcho draws out themes from the works that cannot be addressed quite as well, I’d say, without theological language. He connects our collective human story to God’s story.

The back matter includes discussion questions for each chapter.

Though I had previously read and studied all four poems Atcho discusses, I’ve read only one of the seven novels—and this despite my being an English major in college! This book makes me want to read more for sure. I’ve already stocked up my library accordingly. I’m grateful to Atcho for reactivating my interest in fiction and for extending it in the direction of these seminal African American novels.

You can buy Reading Black Books on Amazon (at the time of writing, Amazon is offering three for the price of two!), from Baker Publishing, or from your retailer of choice.