Roundup: Nuns onscreen; Jesus in pop music; El Greco knits

Nuns in pop culture: Anna Silman writes on the current “Nunnassaince” in movies and television, the biggest since the late 1950s and ’60s. She quotes Rebecca Sullivan, author of Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture, on the first wave as a reaction against the sexual revolution. For a list of flicks both new and old, see “Ten Essential Movies About Nuns.”

I’ve seen two movies from 2016 that center on a nun, or nuns. The first is Little Sister, a dramedy directed by Zach Clark. It’s about twenty-something Colleen Lunsford, a novice (prospective nun) who’s temporarily called away from the convent when her brother returns from the Iraq War, suffering from depression after a bomb left his face disfigured. In the town she grew up in Colleen is known as the Goth girl, so former high school friends are shocked to learn about her new religious vocation.

I wish the faith dimension was explored a bit more—the only insight we get into Colleen’s decision to become a Christian and pursue the monastic life is a line she mutters about structure and stability. (Was that her only motivation?) The film is more about reconnecting with family and recognizing that even though you grow up and your interests and bearing and goals may change, your past self, or selves, always remain a little bit a part of you. It’s empathetic and dark but also funny, and it shows how there’s no one mold that makes a nun; nuns come from different places in life, and oftentimes sustain (complicated) relationships outside the cloister. (Watch on Netflix)

The second one I’ve seen and commend is The Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine. Set in a convent in late-1945 Poland and based on a true story, it documents the crisis of faith the nuns of that community are forced to undergo when many of them are raped by invading Russian troops and some pregnancies result. The nuns respond in diverse ways to the horror, struggling to regain their spiritual equilibrium. In desperation, they employ an atheistic French female doctor from the Red Cross, stationed nearby, to help them deliver their babies and to bear their secret. (Watch on Amazon Video)

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“If I Believe You: Agnostic Songs to Jesus” by Joy Clarkson: This article analyzes the song “If I Believe You” by the 1975—which opens with “I’ve got a God-shaped hole that’s infected . . .”—in light of the wider trend of self-proclaimed unreligious artists writing songs addressed to Jesus. Clarkson observes that (1) even within the profoundly secular industry of popular music, there is an openness to spirituality, religion, and Jesus; (2) songs written not only about Jesus, but to Him, create a unique discursive space; and (3) an invocation of negative transcendence may create an openness to a true spiritual experience. I’m intrigued by the titles of the books she references, including The Bible in/and Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter (2010); Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (2011); and Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls (2013).

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Knits by Petros Vrellis: Designed using an algorithm, Vrellis’s re-creations of figures from famous El Greco paintings are formed by knitting a single thread across anchor pegs on a circumference loom. Watch a time-lapse video of Vrellis putting together a knit based on El Greco’s Christ Blessing, below, and read more about his process here. (Another Jesus portrait Vrellis has done is based on El Greco’s Christ in Prayer, visible at 2:27 at the bottom right.) Vrellis has a master’s degree in art sciences; he enjoys exploring the potential of new media through digital art and interactive installations and considers himself more of a “toy inventor” than an artist. Thank you to Tobias M. from Vienna for informing me of this impressive work.

Christ by Petros Vrellis
Knit by Petros Vrellis (Greek, 1974–), based on the painting Christ Blessing by El Greco.

Some of Vrellis’s knits are for sale via Saatchi Art.

Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources

I first learned about fumi-e (“stepping-on pictures”) while reading about the history of Christian art in Japan. These objects are bronze likenesses of Jesus, sometimes shown together with his mother, Mary, that the religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan required suspected Christians to step on in order to prove that they were not members of that outlawed religion. If the apprehended persons refused, they were tortured and, if that didn’t break them, killed—most notoriously, by being boiled to death in the volcanic springs of Mount Unzen.

fumi-e-3

e-fumi ceremony
This painting by Keiga Kawahara, ca. 1826, shows an e-fumi (“picture stepping”) ceremony in Edo Japan, in which a man proves his aversion to Christianity by trampling an image of Christ. Location: National Library of the Netherlands.

This period of persecution lasted from 1629 to 1858.

Fumi-e factor heavily into Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel Chinmoku (Silence), which tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan in 1639 to find their missing mentor—rumored to have apostatized—and to continue the work he started there with the underground church. Written by Endō partly in response to the discrimination he experienced as a Japanese Catholic, the novel is about the struggle for faith in a world marked by God’s seeming absence. It received the highly esteemed Tanizaki Prize the year of its release and instantly became a best seller; it was translated into English in 1969.

Silence book covers
Two cover designs. Left: Christ is crucified on the Japanese kanji for “silence.” Right (illustration by Yuko Shimizu): Father Rodrigues prays desperately on a cliff’s edge, foregrounded by a blood-drenched moon.

Since then it has been the basis of several artistic adaptations: a stage play, also by Endō; a Japanese film by Masahiro Shinoda; a Portuguese film by João Mário Grilo; an opera by Teizo Matsumura; a symphony by James MacMillan—and now an American film by Martin Scorsese, the same director who brought us Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He dedicates it “to Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

Twenty-eight years in the making, Scorsese’s “passion project,” Silence, has been lauded as “one of the best films ever made about Christian faith.” The Telegraph calls it a “plangent, scalding work of religious art . . . soul-pricklingly attuned to matters transcendent and eternal.” Time Out says it “ranks among the greatest achievements of spiritually minded cinema.” “An anguished masterwork of spiritual inquiry,” the Los Angeles Times declares, that “ponders the dogmas, riddles and anxieties of Christian faith with a rigor and seriousness that . . . has few recent equivalents in world cinema. . . . A work of insistent, altogether confounding grace.” Eric Metaxas says, “This may be the most Christian film I have ever seen—and that includes The Passion.”

Released in theaters December 23, 2016, Silence stars Andrew Garfield as lead character Father Sebastião Rodrigues, and Adam Driver as his compatriot, Father Francisco Garrpe. Liam Neeson plays the apostate Cristóvão Ferreira. See the trailer below.

Before I found out Scorsese was adapting Endō’s Silence, I learned of the novel from visual artist Makoto Fujimura, whose own work and theology have been very much influenced by it. Last May he published the book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, about his journey with Endō through art, trauma, and cultural heritage.   Continue reading “Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources”

Roundup: Church engagement with the arts

“Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story,” St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, London: This program comprises a series of weekly noontime gatherings that use famous local paintings as a springboard into discussion of the biblical narrative and its implications for us today. I’ve enjoyed reading the few presentations given by associate vicar Jonathan Evens, posted on his blog: first, on J. M. W. Turner’s two paintings of Noah’s flood, and more recently, on El Greco’s Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.

El Greco_Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple
El Greco (Greek, active Spain, 1541–1614), Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1600. Oil on canvas, 106 × 130 cm (42 × 51 in.). National Gallery, London.

 

VIBRANT music and arts festival, Cahaba Park Church, Birmingham, Alabama: On November 1, 2015, Cahaba Park Church held a Psalms-inspired music and arts festival. Eight visual artists from the church were selected to display their paintings, which were auctioned off to raise money for four nonprofits. The Corner Room performed songs from their new album, Psalm Songs, Volume 1; “Psalm 23” (music by Adam Wright) is the soundtrack for the recap video above. This next VIBRANT festival will be held on July 22.

 

“Art and Spirit” exhibition, First Congregational Church, Los Angeles: Through April 24, the works of over fifty artists will be on display in the Neo-Gothic Shatto Chapel of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Most of the works are by emerging LA artists from Art Division, an organization that provides art training to young adults who lack the resources to attend university but who want to pursue a career in the visual arts; they were asked to respond to the theme “art and spirit.” A few of the works in the exhibition are by well-known artists such as Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Corita Kent, and Ed Ruscha.

 

Portraits of Resurrection, 2015 Easter initiative, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California: Ex Creatis, the arts ministry at Saddleback, is always coming up with unique ways to incorporate art into the life of its church. Last Easter twenty-three volunteer artists sketched portraits of church attendees onto one of three floral prints (of the sitter’s choosing) made by three different artists in the church. These personalized works of art were meant to remind those who took them home of the new life they have in Christ.