Roundup: Christmas music, old poems with Grace, and more

ADVENT MEDITATION: “Love is . . .” by the Rev. Jonathan Evens: Evens shared this brief written meditation last week at Advent Night Prayer at St Catherine’s Wickford in England, pondering the love Mary demonstrated at various points along the way from the announcement of Jesus’s conception to her and her family’s resettlement in Egypt.

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SONGS:

>> “I Pray on Christmas” (cover) by the Good Shepherd Collective: This song was written by Harry Connick Jr. and is performed here by Benjamin Kilgore with Terence Clark, Liz Vice, and Charles Jones of the Good Shepherd Collective, an interdenominational group of musicians collaborating across the US. The video is directed by Jeremy Stanley.

>> “Mary Was the First One to Carry the Gospel” by the Gaither Vocal Band: I grew up in a Baptist church in North Carolina, so southern gospel music is a very familiar genre for me! But I hadn’t heard this song before, until my mom sent me a link last week. It was written by Mark Lowry and Bill Gaither (they took the title from a 1978 song by Dottie Rambo), who sing it here with David Phelps and Guy Penrod at the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham in 2000 as part of the Gaithers’ Christmas in the Country concert. It’s about how Mary was the first person to carry the good news enfleshed—first in her womb, and then in her arms.

>> “Late Upon a Starry Night” by David Benjamin Blower: David Benjamin Blower is an “apocalyptic folk musician, poet, writer, theologian, podcaster, and sound artist” from the UK whose work emphasizes the liberative strains of the gospel. He just released this original Christmas song yesterday, and it will be available only through January 5, 2023, on Bandcamp, with 50 percent of proceeds going to Safe Passage UK, an organization working toward safe routes for refugees. Blower said he wrote the song after hearing a friend talk about her experience of Moria refugee camp in Greece.

The stanzas tell the story of the Annunciation to Mary, Mary and Joseph’s Journey to Bethlehem, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Journey of the Magi, and the Flight to Egypt. The refrain draws a line from the first book of the Bible to the last, referencing God’s prophecy in Eden about the serpent’s head being crushed by a descendant of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15) (the serpent being representative of sin and death) as well as, implicitly, the image in Revelation 12 of the woman in labor and the dragon. Read the lyrics on the song’s Bandcamp page.

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PODCAST SERIES: Advent 2022, Old Books with Grace: I’ve been loving Dr. Grace Hamman’s four-part Advent podcast series, consisting of roughly twenty-minute episodes that discuss seasonal poems. Hamman is a specialist in medieval literature and theology and has the rare gift of being able to translate her extensive knowledge to nonspecialists in engaging and personal ways. She can speak with facility on lit and theology from other eras too. In this series she talks about our status as pilgrims in this world, how Christ carries our prayers in his body, nature-inspired images of the Incarnation, and more. I frequently come away from her podcast with new insight, and always having been spiritually nourished. If you’re traveling for Christmas, queue these up for the car, plane, train, or bus ride! Or work them into your week some other way, perhaps over breakfast, or while you’re doing dishes. Old Books with Grace is available wherever you listen to podcasts. (I use Google Podcasts, but Apple Podcasts or PodBean are the most popular providers.)

  • Episode 1: Were we led all this way for birth or death? (“Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot)
  • Episode 2: Harke! Despair Away (“The Bag” by George Herbert)
  • Episode 3: Heaven Cannot Hold Him (“A Christmas Carol” by Christina Rossetti and excerpt from Piers Plowman by William Langland)
  • Episode 4: Dayspring (releases December 21; will cover an Old English version and Middle English version of one of the O Antiphons)

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DANCING ANGEL: This video from a church Christmas pageant in Porter, Indiana, went viral in 2019, but I’m just now seeing it (thanks to @upworthy!). It shows then-four-year-old Isabella Grace Webb dancing it up freestyle in her angel costume to “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” So adorable!

Advent, Day 12: The New Eve

LOOK: Prado Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico_The Annunciation (Prado)
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), The Annunciation, ca. 1426. Tempera and gold on wood panel, 162.3 × 191.5 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Annunciation was a favorite subject of the Early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico [previously], and he painted it multiple times throughout his career. Once was for an altarpiece for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

In this version Mary sits on a draped chair under the portico of a domestic space, reading the scriptures, when suddenly this otherworldly being, dressed in rose and radiating, approaches. It’s the archangel Gabriel. His foot crosses the threshold of paradise into Mary’s space—the divine stepping into the human realm. Will you do it? he asks. Be mother to God?

Mary’s initial fear and perplexity eventually give way to glad acceptance. The artist compresses the episode—the arrival, the ask, the cogitation, the answer—into this singular freeze frame. When Mary says yes to God’s plan to become flesh of her flesh and so work out the salvation of the world, God releases his Spirit, who rides a stream of light from the heavens into her womb. At this miraculous moment, Jesus is conceived.

Gabriel crosses his hands over his chest in humble reverence, a gesture mirrored by Mary. Both are still before the profound mystery of the Incarnation.

Fra Angelico used ultramarine—the finest and most expensive of all pigments, made from lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone imported to Europe from the Middle East—to paint Mary’s mantle as well as the star-studded ceiling above her. Blue represents heaven, and here Mary is clothed with it and overshadowed by it.

Prado Annunciation (detail)

The male figure in the carved roundel above the central column is, I’d say (based on the unambiguous Montecarlo Altarpiece), the prophet Isaiah, who wrote centuries before the event that “the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).

But Fra Angelico goes even further back than the Old Testament prophets. On the left side of the panel he shows our foreparents, Adam and Eve, being cast out of paradise, having broken God’s trust. They blush in shame—they wince, they cover their face. By including this catalyzing event from salvation history in his painting of the Annunciation, the artist is telling a larger narrative. In particular, he is drawing connections, mainly contrastive, between Adam and Eve and Christ and Mary.

Prado Annunciation (detail)

In his epistles, the apostle Paul talks about Christ as the Second Adam, or the New/Last Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:22–23, 45), who came to restore what was lost with the first Adam. Whereas Adam disobeyed God and caused sin to enter the world, Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, thereby redeeming humanity. The early church fathers, starting with Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian in the second century, extended this corollary with another: Mary as the Second Eve. Whereas Eve rejected God’s will, Mary embraced it, and her obedient yes, like Eve’s disobedient no, had repercussions for all of humanity. As the arts lecturer John Skillen puts it, our undoing in the Expulsion is undone by the Annunciation.

We see on the left an angel driving humanity out of Eden, but on the right, another angel welcomes humanity back in. And in a glorious reversal of the order of first creation, where Eve was created from Adam, here the Second Adam is created from the Second Eve, knit together from her DNA.

In the first issue of her Medievalish newsletter from last December, Dr. Grace Hamman discusses Fra Angelico’s Prado Annunciation in terms of chronos (ordinary time measured in seconds and hours) and kairos (moments outside of time). “Fra Angelico recognizes something that is easy to forget: because God is outside of time, not bound by chronology like us creatures, this painting offers a ‘God’s-eye view’ of salvation history,” she writes, portraying a simultaneity of “falls” that the fourteenth-century contemplative writer Julian of Norwich expounds on:

When Adam fell, God’s Son fell; because of the true union which was made in heaven, God’s Son could not be separated from Adam, for by Adam I understand all mankind. Adam fell from life to death, into the valley of this wretched world, and after that into hell. God’s Son fell with Adam, into the valley of the womb of the maiden who was the fairest daughter of Adam, and that was to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully he brought him out of hell. (Revelations of Divine Love, chap. 51)

“There was never a moment,” Hamman continues, “even in the expulsion from Eden, that Emmanuel was not with us, if one is given the eyes of kairos.”

This came a few weeks after we discussed the artwork, along with several others on the Annunciation, on Hamman’s podcast, Old Books with Grace. It’s such a generative painting!

And the Annunciation is only the main panel. Along the predella (base) are depicted the Marriage of the Virgin, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Dormition (the “falling asleep,” or death, of Mary).

LISTEN: “Cum erubuerint infelices” (While Downcast Parents Blushed) by Hildegard of Bingen, ca. 1175 | Performed by La Reverdie on Sponsa Regis: La victoire de la Vierge dans l’œuvre d’Hildegard, 2003

Cum erubuerint infelices
in progenie sua,
procedentes in peregrinatione casus,
tunc tu clamas clara voce,
hoc modo homines elevans
de isto malicioso
casu.
While downcast parents blushed,
ashamed to see their offspring
wand’ring off into the fallen exile’s pilgrimage,
you cried aloud with crystal voice,
to lift up humankind
from that malicious
fall.

Trans. Nathaniel M. Campbell [source]

The Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary theologian, poet, composer, singer, artist, gardener, and physician. She wrote on scientific and medical subjects in addition to theology, which she conveyed not only through prose but also through poetry, music, dramas, and illuminations. She was quite the medieval polymath!

I first learned about Hildegard in a Western music history survey course in college, in a unit centered on her Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues). I couldn’t believe I had never heard about this amazing sister in the faith before. In 2012 she was formally canonized by the Roman Catholic Church—a long time coming!—and Pope Benedict XVI even named her a “doctor of the church,” a title given to saints who have made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine.

The corpus of surviving musical compositions by Hildegard is larger than that of any other medieval composer. More than half of these are antiphons, short free verses sung before and after each set of psalms during monastic prayer.

“Cum erubuerint” is one such antiphon. Hildegard would have sung it with her sisters at her monastery on the Rupertsberg and later the abbey at Eibingen as part of the Divine Office.

The song addresses the Virgin Mary, whose yes to Gabriel set into motion the Incarnation and thus humanity’s deliverance from spiritual exile.

As are many of Hildegard’s compositions, “Cum erubuerint” is highly melismatic—that is, it features long melodic phrases sung to one syllable. For example, I counted thirteen notes on the first syllable, “Cum”! The highest pitch occurs on clara (“clear”), referring to the definitive quality of Mary’s consent, bright and luminous, to this new thing that God is doing. An agent of God’s grace, Mary speaks a word that cuts through the mists of confusion through which we’ve been wandering, lost, uplifting us from the fall (casu), whose depths are underscored by that word’s being pitched the lowest. In her fiat, Mary is essentially saying, “Let there be light.”

Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations) is the title Hildegard gave to her collection of musical compositions, which are preserved in two manuscripts:

  • Dendermonde (D), Belgium, Sint-Pieters-en-Paulusabdij, Cod. 9 (ca. 1175). This one is considered by scholars to be the more authoritative. It was prepared under Hildegard’s supervision as a gift for the monks of Villers and contains fifty-seven songs.
  • Riesenkodex (R), Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2 (ca. 1180–85). This revised and enlarged edition, which includes seventy-five songs, was produced at the Rupertsberg scriptorium not long after Hildegard’s death.

“Cum erubuerint” appears in both.

Cum erubuerint by Hildegard
D 155r
Cum erubuerint (R 467r)
R 467r

Click here for a modern transcription from the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies.

In her critical edition of Hildegard’s Symphonia, Barbara Newman writes,

Hildegard’s creations, compared with a contemporary hymn by Abelard or a sequence by Adam of St. Victor, will sound either primitive or unnervingly avant-garde. In a sense they are both. As a Benedictine, she was acquainted with a large repertoire of chant, but she lacked formal training and made no attempt to imitate the mainstream poetic and musical achievements of her day. Various scholars have hypothesized that she was influenced by German folksong, yet her compositions lack the two essential traits of a popular tune: it must be easy to remember and easy to sing. The difficult music of the Symphonia is sui generis. In [Sr. Maria Immaculata] Ritscher’s words, it is ‘gregorianizing but not Gregorian’ and impossible to classify in terms of any known contemporary movement. (27–28)

And regarding Hildegard’s lyrical texts:

Until the advent of modern vers libre, scholars were reluctant even to dignify Hildegard’s songs with the title of poetry. In style they are much closer to Kunstprosa, a highly wrought figurative language that resembles poetry in its density and musicality, yet with no semblance of meter or regular form. (32–33)

The above performance of “Cum erubuerint” is by La Reverdie, a medieval and Renaissance vocal ensemble that started in 1986 with two pairs of sisters from Italy.

But in addition, here are a few instrumental versions I particularly like:

>> Tina Chancey of the early music ensemble Hesperus plays the melody on kemenche, a bowed instrument from the Black Sea region of Turkey:

>> Riley Lee on shakuhachi (bamboo flute):

>> Noël Akchoté on electric guitar:

The song also appears, under the title “From This Wicked Fall,” on the Billboard-topping Vision: The Music of Hildegard Von Bingen (1994), a classical-electronic crossover album of seventeen of Hildegard’s works arranged by Richard Souther. In Souther’s version, nonlexical vocables (sung by soprano Emily Van Evera and mezzo-soprano Sister Germaine Fritz, OSB) replace the Latin text.

Advent roundup: Tsh Oxenreider, Lanecia Rouse Tinsley, and more

Advent is just around the corner, and here is some topical content for the season. (Much more to come!)

PODCAST EPISODES:

>> “On Journeying: Travel, Traditions, and Turning to the Psalms with Tsh Oxenreider,” Sacred Ordinary Days, December 22, 2020: Host Jenn Giles Kemper interviews author, travel guide, and fellow podcaster Tsh Oxenreider about her book Shadow and Light: A Journey into Advent. The liturgical calendar is a gift, not a burden, Oxenreider says; it provides scaffolding for our year and connects Christians to one another across time and place, in addition, of course, to promoting encounters with God and God’s story. Oxenreider provides book and music recommendations for the Advent season and shares one of her family’s favorite simple Advent traditions.

>> “The Annunciation and Art with Victoria Emily Jones,” Old Books with Grace, November 17, 2021: Old Books with Grace, hosted by Dr. Grace Hamman [previously], a specialist in medieval literature, is one of my favorite podcasts, so I was beyond excited to be invited on as a guest! In this conversation, Grace and I discuss four paintings and three poems that respond to the momentous event known as the Annunciation, where Gabriel tells Mary that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son. While the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25, we thought it nonetheless appropriate at this time just before Advent to consider how Mary welcomes Jesus, since we are preparing to welcome him ourselves. Available on YouTube and on all podcast streaming platforms.

Grace just wrapped up a fascinating series on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and for the four weeks of Advent she will be taking a closer look at four familiar Christmas carols from different eras, examining their history, theology, and language and recommending an Advent practice inspired by each carol. Follow Old Books with Grace on Instagram or Twitter.

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SONG: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: This is the quintessential Advent hymn. Here are two renditions from last December by two of my favorite musical artists/groups. Wilder Adkins’s recording is on the Advent Sessions EP from Redeemer Community Church, and the Good Shepherd Collective recording, featuring Liz Vice and Charles Jones, is available as a single.

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NEW ALBUM: Advent Songs by the Porter’s Gate: The Porter’s Gate [previously] released a new album on November 12, a collection of ten original songs for Advent. The contributing songwriters are Nicholas Chambers, Paul Zach, Kate Bluett, Isaac Wardell, Liz Vice, Latifah Alattas (Page CXVI), and Tenielle Neda. Chambers, Zach, Vice, Alattas, and Neda are also featured as vocalists, as are Molly Parden, Jonathan Ogden, and Lauren Plank Goans. My favorites: “The Reign of Mercy,” “Mary’s Lullaby (Black Haired Boy),” “Simeon’s Song.”

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PAINTING + SHORT FILM: In 2017 Holy Family HTX, a church in Houston, commissioned artist-in-residence Lanecia Rouse Tinsley to create nine liturgical paintings, one for each major season of the church year. Called the Parament Collection, these six-by-six-foot pieces rotate throughout the year, signaling the change of season and inviting the congregation into a space of contemplation around seasonal themes.

The first painting in the cycle, Advent, is a minimalist composition predominantly in ultramarine, evoking Yves Klein’s blue monochromes; Tinsley says that, like Klein, she wants to “impregnate” the viewer with blue, which for her signifies hope. Blue (or alternatively, purple) is the primary color of Advent, but pink and white (for Gaudete Sunday and Christmas Eve, respectively) are also associated with it, which Tinsley makes reference to in her painting. At the white bar at the top, you can see a faint mark left by Hurricane Harvey; her studio flooded when the storm hit in August 2017, and this then-blank canvas suffered some water damage, but Tinsley made the conscious decision to use it to further press into the Advent theme of suffering. She lined the canvas in black, inspired by a line from Andy Warhol’s film Sunset: “Black means infinity.” All our longings, Tinsley says, are held within infinity.

The nine-minute film posted above is one of nine in a series by Chap Edmonson, titled Decoded, in which Tinsley discusses her Parament Collection piece by piece. View all nine films here.

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I also wanted to remind you about the Art & Theology Advent playlist I compiled on Spotify. Besides the ones mentioned above, here are the songs I’ve added to the mix since last Advent:

  • “Wonder” by MaMuse
  • “Better Days” by Chrisinti
  • “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens
  • “Peace” by Peter Bruun (a setting of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem)
  • “Magnificat primi toni” by Palestrina
  • “From This Wicked Fall” (Cum erubuerint) and “The Flower Gleams” (Hodie aperuit) by Hildegard of Bingen, arr. Richard Souther
  • “Mary” by Buffy Sainte-Marie
  • “Like Mary” by Jess Ray and Langdon
  • “Restoration Song (Hold On)” by Son of Cloud
  • Nine songs by Tom Wuest
  • “Lighten Our Darkness” by Joel Clarkson
  • “For the Long Night” by Dan + Claudia Zanes
  • “La Luz” by Brother Isaiah
  • “Sunrise Song” and “Clouds of Waiting, Clouds of Returning” by Jacob Goins
  • “Break of Dawn” and “You Always” by Antoine Bradford
  • “Eternal Light” and “Joy Will Come” by Paul Zach

Roundup: “God is…” exhibition, new song cycle inspired by turn-of-the-century photographs, healing the imagination, and more

EXHIBITION: “God is . . . ,” May 14–23, gallery@oxo, London: The winning entry from the second Chaiya Art Awards competition, along with forty-nine shortlisted others, are being exhibited in London’s South Bank starting tomorrow. The exhibition also has a virtual option, which I received an advance preview of, along with the catalog. Read my review at ArtWay.eu. There is a diverse range of responses to the theme of “God is . . . ,” in a range of media!

Chaiya Art Awards 2021

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VIRTUAL CONCERT: “I Should Be Glad”: On May 2 the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chorale put on a virtual concert, performing songs of lament and hope. They sing of “hours that go on broken wings” and “the unchanging ache of things”; of “this long, hard climb, carr[ying] ancestral sorrow”; of violence and murder; of God’s seeming absence; of feeling like a “moanin’ dove.” But they also sing invitations to be glad, to lay down one’s burden, to see beauty, to soar. Click here for a copy of the program, which contains credits, texts, and translations. I really enjoyed the selection of pieces—most were new to me—and the execution (technical and artistic) is excellent. An hour very well spent. Note that in lieu of a ticket charge, a $10 donation is recommended.

Among the songs are contemporary choral settings of traditional prayers, a civil rights hymn, and the world premiere of the five-movement Where We Find Ourselves by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (she/her), inspired by the photographs of Hugh Magnum. Magnum, who was white, ran an integrated portrait studio in the Jim Crow South from 1897 until his death in 1922, photographing white and Black clients with equal dignity. The glass plate negatives and contact prints languished in his family’s moldering tobacco barn in Durham, North Carolina, until the 1970s, when they were discovered prior to the property’s slated demolition. They were transferred (many of them damaged) to the Duke University archives, where they again lay mostly dormant until being recently dug out by photographer-writers Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, who compiled and presented them as an exhibition and accompanying book. Bussewitz-Quarm’s composition is a moving meditation on these timeworn photographs, and the lyrics by Shantel Sellers are pure poetry.

Hugh Magnum photographs
Photographs by Hugh Magnum, courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, Durham, NC

Hugh Magnum photographs
Hugh Magnum photographs
In some of the negatives the panels have fused, causing the subjects to extend past their frames and thus giving the illusion that they were sitting together.

Hugh Magnum photograph
“The portraits are often accidentally double-exposed,” writes Sarah Blackwood for the New Yorker, “and many of the double exposures overlay images of white and black sitters, who suddenly seem to sit alongside or even atop one another. Such ghostly interactions produce from two Mangum portraits an entirely new image altogether, one in which the pride and pleasure of self-presentation is shadowed by the racial realities of the time.”

Set list:

  • “I Should Be Glad” by Susan LaBarr (composer) and Sara Teasdale (lyricist)
  • “Sometimes I Feel,” traditional African American spiritual, arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw
  • “Meet Me Here” (from Considering Matthew Shepard) by Craig Hella Johnson
  • “Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell
  • “Hymn for These Times” by Jay Rogers (composer) and Meggan Moorhead (lyricist)
  • “Ave Maria” by Robert Nathaniel Dett (composer)
  • “Our Father” by Paul D. Weber (composer)
  • “Where We Find Ourselves” by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (composer) and Shantel Sellers (lyricist)
  • “Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson (composer) (arr. Paul W. Read) and Harriette Hamilton (lyrics)

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POEM COMMENTARY: “The Night” by Henry Vaughan, commentary by Dr. Grace Hamman (blog post | podcast episode): I’ve featured poems by Henry Vaughan several times on this blog but not the one that just might be his most famous: “The Night,” about the Pharisee Nicodemus’s midnight rendezvous with Jesus (see John 3). It contains the beautiful and much-lauded line “There is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness . . .” Medieval literature scholar Grace Hamman [previously], podcaster and blogger at Old Books with Grace, reads and unpacks the poem, first giving some historical and biographical context. Vaughan was an Anglican Welshman living during the English Civil War when the Puritans were in power, which means he was cut off from the forms of worship through which he was used to encountering Christ. This, Hamman says, influenced his writing of the poem and of the larger collection, Silex Scintillians, it’s a part of.

She has made the commentary available in both written and audio form.

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EDITORIALS by JAMES K.A. SMITH:

When I see a James K.A. Smith [previously] byline, I know what follows is going to be good. He’s a fantastic thinker, writer, and speaker—and he’s the editor in chief of my favorite arts journal, Image. Below is a link to the opening editorial he wrote for each of the last two issues. (The whole journal is full of rich content. Subscribe!)

>> “Healing the Imagination: Art Lessons from James Baldwin,” Image no. 107 (Winter 2020): Here Smith engages with James Baldwin’s 1964 essay “The Uses of the Blues,” in which Baldwin discusses how we “project onto the Negro face, because it is so visible, all of our guilts and aggressions and desires”; white America invents stories and images of Black Americans that reflect our disfigured imaginations. “The imagination is a form of habit, a learned, bodily disposition to the world. . . . It’s the imagination—well- or malformed—that determines what I see before I look,” Smith writes.

He connects Baldwin’s essay to Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan, showing how the priest and the Levite had different habits of perception than the protagonist. “To see the person before me as an enemy or animal”—or, I would add, a burden—“is a failure of imagination; to see a neighbor instead is a feat of the imagination. Our society is grappling with a soul-sickness that is ultimately an infection of our imagination.” We reflexively imagine others as threats, competitors, adversaries.

The arts can play a huge role in reshaping our imaginations, in retraining us to see people rightly. “I dream of a third Great Awakening,” he says, “in which our imaginations would be reborn, a sanctification of sight baptized by stories and images such that even our first glance is holy. The tents for this revival would be galleries and cinemas; we’ll sing from poems and novels; the altar call will invite us to attend plays and contemplate sculpture.” He’s not saying art should replace church or religion but that art is a powerful agent of spiritual and perceptual formation; “the arts pluck the strings of our imagination uniquely.”

In their March 3 episode, “Healing the Imagination, with James K.A. Smith,” The Weight podcast had Smith on to expound on some of the points in the editorial, to unpack this musing: “Could it be that the arts are more likely to move the needle on our collective perception of one another?” He discusses definitions of “culture” and “art,” both creational goods (God has deputized human beings to unfurl the tacit possibilities he has folded into creation!); the influence of Augustine and Kuyper on his thought; the “transcending, opening, decentering” potential of artistic encounters; his experience of becoming an American citizen; and why he believes national healing will come not primarily through politics but through the arts. He mentions a few commendable recent examples of churches’ hospitality toward artists, citing Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, written “to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world,” and Redeemer Church of Knoxville, who converted the unused rooms of their building into artist studios for the larger community to use.

“Christian communities, if they actually really care about healing the soul of a nation, could do no better than to invest in the arts,” Smith says. “Not so we can go make Thomas Kinkade paintings or Kirk Cameron movies or whatever, but so that we have artists who are actually speaking to our neighbors in ways that meet them as human.”

>> “How to Visit a Museum: Disciplines of Availability,” Image no. 108 (Spring 2021): “Aesthetic experiences I didn’t go looking for that burrow their way most deeply into my psyche . . . are only possible if I am cultivating a way of life that puts me in front of artworks that don’t conform to my preferences. That might mean signing up for the disciplines of an aesthetic way of life in which I am puzzled or frustrated or decentered by the feeling of ‘not getting it.’ It means approaching paintings and poems without expecting immediate returns. In my experience, the way of surprise lies in listening to a community of friends bear witness to what has captivated them and letting my puzzlement be an impetus to explore new territory. When Shane McCrae gushes about a poet who has felt inaccessible to me, I assume I have something to learn. And so I taste and see. A life hungry for aesthetic surprise does not settle for daily doses of predictably poignant comfort; instead, I need to expose my palate to strange, maybe even unsavory tastes as a way of making myself available for the sublime. While we can’t manufacture the surprise, we can learn to make ourselves available.” Read more at the link.

Reminds me of a creative prompt given last November by Corey Frey of The Well Collaborative in Frederick, Maryland: “Find a challenging poem or work of art or piece of music that doesn’t trigger your appreciative mechanism quite so easily. Sit with it. Let it confuse you. Allow its toe to creep in the crack of the door of your respect (re-spect: look a second time).”

Roundup: (Virtual) Arts conference, Psalm 129 jazz-hip-hop-folk fusion, and more

This year’s The Breath and the Clay creative arts gathering, on the theme of “Reenchantment,” is taking place March 17–21, with both in-person (in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and virtual options. Registration for virtual attendees is pay-what-you-wish. Presenters include theologian Jeremy Begbie, poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, singer-songwriter Joy Ike, contemplative author Christine Valters Paintner, dancer Camille D.C. Sutton, and many more . . . including me! On the evening of March 18 I’ll be giving a twenty-minute talk titled “Saying Yes: The Annunciation in Contemporary Art,” which will be archived online afterward. (The global church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation the following week, on March 25.) (Update: Watch here.) Here’s the description:

The story of Jesus’s miraculous conception in the womb of Mary, a first-century Galilean peasant girl, told in Luke 1 has activated the imaginations of artists since the early Christian era. When an angelic messenger came and told Mary she had been chosen to bear God’s Son, she cycled through a range of emotions before ultimately accepting the call, stepping onto a path that, though scary, would be life-giving not only for her but also for her religious and ethnic community and for the whole world.

God invites us to participate in his work in the world and gives us the grace to do it. When his voice breaks through our safe, predictable routines, calling us to something big, do we respond with brave obedience? In this talk Victoria Emily Jones will share a handful of contemporary artworks that visualize that pivotal moment in salvation history when Mary said yes and set in motion the incarnation. These works show us the wild beauty of God’s plans and can help us tune our ears to the annunciations in our own lives.

(The title slide image is a detail of an Annunciation painting by Jyoti Sahi.)

I’m always impressed by the variety of artists, arts professionals, and art lovers that director Stephen Roach manages to bring together for The Breath and the Clay. Click here to learn more and to register.

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ONLINE LENT SERIES:

>> VCS Lent 2021: The Visual Commentary on Scripture is highlighting a different exhibition from its archives for each week of Lent, with new content including a video introduction to the week by Ben Quash and an audio reading of each of the three constituent commentaries.

The first week was on the theme of Covenant and covers Genesis 8:20–9:17. Stefania Gerevini curated three artworks from Italy that convey some aspect of the rainbow as divine promise: a thirteenth-century mosaic from the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, a colorful dome fresco (fifteenth century) from the Cappella Portinari in Milan, and a contemporary light installation by Dan Flavin at Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa, also in Milan.

Week 2, on Prophecy, explores the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Jonathan Koestlé-Cate comments on three modern artworks: Crucified Tree Form by Theyre Lee-Elliott, a crucifix by Germaine Richier (which sparked outrage when it was unveiled at Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce, Assy, in 1950), and an installation by postminimalist artist Anish Kapoor at the church of Saint Peter, Cologne.

>> “The Many Faces of Jesus”: I’ve been enjoying this Lenten series (on blog and podcast) by medievalist Dr. Grace Hamman, who makes medieval lit super accessible. “For Lent, Old Books With Grace will share and explore some medieval representations of Jesus in art and literature—the versions of Jesus that dominate the medieval church’s imagination. These medieval portrayals of Jesus may strike us as odd, threatening, charming, creative, stupid, or inspiring. In attending to these versions of Jesus, I hope for a few end goals: the first is that we may expand our Christian imagination. Perhaps a side of Jesus that has never occurred to you, or been sideswept by our contemporary culture, will suddenly illuminate an aspect of the Jesus of scripture. The second is that we may better identify the ways that we ourselves have culturally contained and portrayed Jesus, in positive and negative ways. Often the strangeness of the past helps us recognize the weird or damaging things we believe in order to make Jesus more palatable, understandable, or like us.”

Christ and his bride
Jean Bondol, “The bride (Ecclesia) and bridegroom (Christ),” from a Bible Historiale made in Paris, 1371–72. The Hague, MMW, 10 B 23, fol. 330v.

So far she has covered Jesus as judge, lover, and knight.

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RETUNED HYMNS:

>> “Up from My Youth (Psalm 129)” by Advent Birmingham, feat. CashBack and Terence June Gray: This is such a strange and compelling fusion! “An 1806 hymn by Isaac Watts meets hip-hop meets Johnny Cash meets folk meets New Orleans jazz meets industrial steel factory.”

Led by Zac Hicks, Advent Birmingham [previously] is a group of worship musicians from the Cathedral Church of the Advent in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Hicks wrote this new tune for Isaac Watts’s metrical paraphrase of Psalm 129 and integrated a rap by guest artist Terence June Gray from Memphis. Singing lead (and playing drums) is Leif Bondarenko, the front man of the Johnny Cash tribute band CashBack. The video was filmed at Birmingham’s historic Sloss Furnaces. Available on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.

You can read the lyrics here, which include a slight revision of Watts’s verse 6.

>> “Thy Mercy, My God”: Words by John Stocker, 1776; music by Sandra McCracken, 2005; performed by Ellen Petersen Haygood (of The Petersens bluegrass band), 2018.

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POETRY READING: “Phase One” by Dilruba Ahmed, read, with commentary, by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Poetry Unbound: What do you find hard to forgive in yourself? What might help? In this poem, the poet makes a list of all the things she holds against herself: opening fridge doors, fantasies, wilted seedlings, unkempt plants, lost bags, feeling awkward, treating someone poorly. Dilruba Ahmed repeats the line ‘I forgive you’ over and over, like a litany, in a hope to deepen what it means to be in the world, and be a person of love.”