PLAYLIST: I can’t keep up with all the quality Christian (or, for artists who eschew that label, spiritually inflected?) music recordings that are out there—recent releases as well as back catalogs dating as far back as the thirties. There really is a breadth, and I sometimes get frustrated when I hear people claim otherwise. (Yes, there’s a lot of really crummy Christian music too . . . but that doesn’t mean the entire genre should be dismissed!) During this season of Ordinary Time I’m going to endeavor to release a monthly Spotify playlist consisting of a random assortment of thirty psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, each by a different artist. Here’s June’s:
CALL TO ARTISTS:8th Catholic Arts Biennial: Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, has issued a call for submissions for its eighth biannual juried exhibition of Christian-themed art. “This Biennial encourages submissions that expand representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, biblical narratives, and the lives of the saints beyond Eurocentric presentations. Artwork made by women and persons of color is strongly encouraged. In addition to depictions of traditional Christian subjects, artists are urged to submit works that address social concerns from perspectives of faith pertinent to the contemporary moment. Works investigating the diversity of the human experience enlivened by Gospel values are also desired.”
Artists can be of any religious or denominational affiliation and can submit up to three works by the deadline of June 25. In addition to being exhibited September 6–October 29, 2021, at the Verostko Center for the Arts, the finalists will also be eligible for a top prize of $1,000, plus other cash prizes. The juror this year is David Brinker, director of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis University. (The painting on the promotional poster is The Holy Family by Janet McKenzie, a previous winner.)
>> “Prarthana Kelkaname” (Hear Our Prayer): Jijo Hebron, a Christian worship leader from Kerala, India, and his wife Niveda Jijo released this YouTube recording on Sunday, in which they sing to God in the Malayalam language. The song’s English meaning is below. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
Hear our prayer and supplication, oh Lord It is the promise in your Son’s name: Whatever we ask, it will be granted. There is no one to take care of my worries apart from you Who stands as my father and mother
>> “Morning Prayer” by Langhorne Slim: From the album Strawberry Mansion, released this January.
ANIMATED SHORT: If Anything Happens I Love You: “In the aftermath of tragedy, two grieving parents journey through an emotional void as they mourn the loss of a child.” Written and directed by Will McCormack and Michael Govier and animated by Youngran Nho and team, this thirteen-minute film won Best Animated Short at the 2021 Oscars. It’s amazing how much I feel for these characters after such a short time of getting to know them. Streaming on Netflix.
ARTICLE: “Art and Interfaith Conversation” by Andrew Smith: Birmingham, England, is a religiously diverse city, home not only to Christians but also to Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and others. The Church of England recognizes this rich presence and has on staff a director of interfaith relations for the bishop of Birmingham, Canon Dr. Andrew Smith. Smith is interested in how art and artifacts can be used to develop conversations between people of different faiths and to create new conversations, and here he discusses a Birmingham Conversations project he led along that vein: multifaith group tours at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and St. Philip’s Cathedral. These he embarked on with a posture primarily of learning, not teaching. [HT: Still Life]
Smith served as a consultant for the museum’s faith gallery, which highlights religious objects from various traditions. He discusses the importance of honoring the integrity of each object’s spiritual significance, and some of the difficulties of creating a space that’s welcoming to people of all faiths when certain faiths regard certain imagery as problematic or even forbid it. He also shares some of the responses of non-Christian participants to specific works of Christian art, in both the museum and the cathedral. Some from the latter are recorded in the following video:
The Birmingham Conversations also commissioned two local artists, Jake Lever and Mandy Ross, to produce work informed by their visits over a yearlong period to different places of worship around Birmingham.
Sarah, you massaged my sacrum
with a tennis ball when I was in labor.
Like a priestess of the body, you
wiped the newborn Ismail clean
of birthblood and whispered first
holy words into his ear. You are his mother
too. We are kin. No decrees
of man or God can make this truer
than it is, nor can it be cloven.
We did not begin with the husband we shared,
but in Egypt, with divine
intelligence arrowed from eye to eye
across a patio of pagan strangers,
when I was royalty and you were trembling
in the house. You knew exile and I
knew exile. You suffered and I suffered.
Like matter, kinship can be changed
but not destroyed. Cruelty tarnishes,
but cannot dissolve it. We are kin
from bread baked together,
salted, broken, eaten, sacred
as a challah braid at sunset on the Night of Power;
from the battering waters of the sea we crossed;
from the Tree of Life whose branches
we burned to stay alive. Kin
we are from knowledge of the Name;
you had the first letters, I had the last
and, putting them together, we
spelled out the Secret.
“Kin” by Mohja Kahf is from Hagar Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 2016). Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., acting on behalf of the publisher.
Mohja Kahf is a Syrian American poet, novelist, and scholar of Arabic literature, postcolonial studies, and Arab and Arab American feminism. Born in Damascus but moving to the Midwest as a child, she was raised in a devout Muslim household. In her creative work and scholarship, she both respects and interrogates her own faith tradition.
Her second poetry collection, Hagar Poems, gives voice to several female characters from the Qur’an and Islamic history, many of whom are also present in the biblical narrative. Part 1 focuses on Hajar (or Hagar, as she’s called in the Bible) and, to a lesser extent, Sarah, the ancient feuding matriarchs of Islam and Judaism, respectively. The remaining two parts spotlight Zuleikha (Potiphar’s wife); Asiya (Moses’s adoptive mother); Balqis (the queen of Sheba); Maryam (Mary); Khadija, Aisha, and Fatima (wives of Muhammad); Nusaiba (a disciple of Muhammad’s); and Hamamah (an Ethiopian princess-turned-slave known primarily as the mother of Bilal, a Muslim convert). The stories of these women are sometimes transposed into contemporary times. For example, Hajar goes to the moon, sees a therapist, participates in an AIDS march, and is visited by a caseworker responding to a report of domestic violence.
Like a few others in the volume, the poem I’ve selected here explores the relationship between Hagar and Sarah as a metonym for the relationships between modern-day adherents of the two religions they represent, on both personal and political scales (e.g., the Arab-Israeli conflict). But “Kin” is revisionist and aspirational, reimagining a more congenial, mutually supportive, compassionate sisterhood between the two matriarchs, and therefore also a brighter future for their descendants. It might be said that patriarchy made Hagar and Sarah rivals. Both suffered abuse within the system and at different points inflicted it as each gained privilege over the other and vulnerabilities and power dynamics shifted.
According to the biblical story (Gen. 12:10–20), a famine in Canaan drove Abraham and his wife Sarah to seek relief in Egypt. Fearful that his life would be endangered because of Sarah’s beauty (kings were, after all, known to go to extreme measures to get what they want), Abraham presents Sarah to the royal court as his sister, implying that she is sexually available. Pharaoh thus acquires her for his harem and, in gratitude for the giving over of his “sister,” lavishes Abraham with livestock and servants. But as judgment against Pharaoh’s act of (unwitting) adultery, God strikes him and his household with plagues, which is when Pharaoh realizes that he has been deceived. He orders Abraham and Sarah to leave Egypt.
It’s not until Genesis 16:1 that we meet Hagar, identified as “an Egyptian slave” (or, as some translations have it, a handmaid or servant) owned by Sarah. Presumably Sarah acquired—and yes, I use that disgusting term again, because women were treated as possessions in ancient Mesopotamia—Hagar during her time in Egypt.
When Sarah cannot get pregnant, she forces Hagar to have sex with Abraham to bear him an heir. But when Hagar conceives Ishmael, Sarah becomes jealous, and the abuse worsens to the point that Hagar runs away. But God visits Hagar in the wilderness with words of comfort and reassurance. She returns to Abraham’s household and gives birth to Ishmael. Sometime later, Sarah herself miraculously conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac, after which she casts out Hagar and Ishmael, no longer having need of them. God again comes to Hagar and to her son, both of them weak from thirst and on the verge of death. He reveals to them a well and promises to make of Ishmael a great nation, just as he promised of Isaac. “You are the God who sees me,” Hagar exults (Gen. 16:13).
According to Jewish midrash, before her enslavement to Sarah, Hagar was actually an Egyptian princess—that is, a daughter of Pharaoh’s. When Pharaoh witnessed the miracle that Sarah’s God performed for Sarah’s sake, he gave Hagar to her, saying, “Better that my daughter be a maidservant in this house than a mistress in another house” (Genesis Rabbah 45:1). In other retellings, Pharaoh gives her away reluctantly as penance, not wanting to incur any more of God’s wrath. And in yet another version, leaving Egypt with Sarah is Hagar’s idea, as she wishes to follow the one true God.
Islamic tradition also affirms Hagar’s royal birth, though according to the Qisas Al-Anbiya, she was the daughter of the king of Maghreb, whom Pharaoh killed, thus capturing her. Notably, neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an; they are only briefly alluded to in Surah Ibrahim 14:37, where Abraham says in prayer, “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.” Hagar is, however, mentioned amply in the hadith.
In “Kin,” Kahf is interested in what binds Sarah and Hagar—and Jews and Muslims—together. Both women were subjected to gendered oppression, including sexual abuse, and had no recourse against it. Both were, at different times, strangers in a strange land—first Sarah in Egypt, then Hagar in Canaan and later the wilderness of Paran. Both experienced miraculous interventions by God and even heard his voice. Both were mothers. They shared, at least initially, a husband and a home—they baked and broke bread together. Their family lines would diverge, but the two, Kahf writes, were as intertwined as the braids of a challah loaf. “Kin / we are from knowledge of the Name”—both knew and embraced the same God, as would their spiritual descendants.
The poem is written to Sarah from Hagar’s perspective. Hagar looks back with empathy to their first meeting, when “I was royalty” (as rabbinic tradition has it) “and you were trembling / in the house.” Kahf idealistically envisions an intimacy between the two, and a cooperative spirit—for example, Sarah giving Hagar a sacral massage while she’s in labor, afterward welcoming Ishmael into the world with love and devotion.
This picture is not what we get in the sacred texts, where Sarah regards Hagar with bitterness and hostility and mistreats her, and, if Sarah’s complaints can be trusted, Hagar lords it over Sarah when Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s first son.
But what if the women had been friends? What if Ishmael and Isaac had been raised together as brothers? How might those strong familial ties and goodwill have impacted subsequent generations and influenced Jewish-Muslim relations in the present day?
Like Kahf, Indian American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin also explores gender and religious identity through her work, focusing especially on the biblical matriarchs. Also like Kahf, she is interested in the midrashic process by which exegetes, be they scholars or artists, approach the stories of scripture with a spirit of seeking and inquiry, responding with creative interpretations that read between the lines and ponder implications.
In her painting Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), Sarah wears a kippah on her head and tefillin (small boxes with passages from the Torah curled inside) on her arms, while Hagar wears a hijab and a misbaḥah (string of prayer beads). The two women are wound together in a tight embrace—“reflections of each other,” the artist says. They’re also wounded together, their bodies blown apart, blood dripping like tears from the rifts. To the side is a pair of amputee Israeli soldiers, whose surveillance camera has identified three Palestinian suicide bombers. Integrated into the foliate decoration around the border are guns and grenades.
Benjamin says this painting represents the eventual reuniting of Sarah and Hagar after Hagar’s banishment, an invented outcome but one that expresses hope for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims, and particularly between Israel and Palestine. When we recognize the shared humanity of the “other,” and how they are just as beloved of God, it becomes impossible to view them as the enemy, to be occupied or killed.
Did Sarah and Hagar ever share the kind of closeness Benjamin envisions in Beloved? Probably not. But does that mean the two nations they founded must forever be at war? Let us pray for peace and pursue it.
Instead of finger-pointing or offering political solutions, these two artistic works—one by a Muslim, one by a Jew—serve as prayers of lament and hope. They probe beneath the surface of Sarah and Hagar’s story and imagine future possibilities.
Below you will find a mix of annotated links to songs, interviews, articles, and art showings of interest: “The Sound of Silence” on classical guitar; an acoustic ecologist whose job is to record nature’s music; giving up books for Lent; two interfaith art exhibitions (Faces of Prayer in Vienna and To Bough and ToBend in Los Angeles); and two new folk music albums (Old Wow by Sam Lee and Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters).
This is the title track of Karadaglić’s fifth album, Sound of Silence, released last fall. To watch him perform the piece in London’s Air Studios, as filmed by Classic FM in October for Live Music Month 2019, click here.
PODCAST EPISODE: “Silence and the Presence of Everything,”On Being interview with Gordon Hempton: “Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton collects sounds from around the world. He’s recorded inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest, thunder in the Kalahari Desert, and dawn breaking across six continents. An attentive listener, he says silence is an endangered species on the verge of extinction. He defines real quiet as presence—not an absence of sound but an absence of noise.”
Such a unique vocation—listening to places, preserving natural soundscapes. “I hear music coming from the land,” Hempton says. “Some of the most sublime symphonies have been hidden away in something as simple as a driftwood log.” Among his other favorite “musics” are “grass wind” (“the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of . . . the blade of grass”) and sounds from “the most musical beach in the world,” Rialto Beach.
Earth is a solar-powered jukebox. . . . We can go to the equator, listen to the Amazon, where we have maximum sunlight, maximum solar energy. The solar panels, the leaves, are harvesting that and cycling it into the bioacoustic system. And, to my ears, that’s a little too intense. That’s a little bit too much action.
Then we can jump up into Central America, and we can still feel and hear the intense solar energy, but it’s beginning to wane.
And we notice a really big difference when we start getting into the temperate latitudes, of which I particularly enjoy recording in because it’s not just about the sound, but it’s about something that I call the “poetics” of space. . . .
“Silence is really wonderful, isn’t it?” he beams. “Even when we just let it exist, it feeds our soul.”
ESSAY: Last year Leah Slawson gave up books for Lent. When I first read that headline, I balked. Books are so life-giving to me! But as I read on, I came to understand Slawson’s reasoning (with which I can identify), and, while I’m not fasting from reading, I admire her choice. “I put a high value on reading, but I am keenly aware that I can use it as an escape from thinking my own thoughts or from noticing my feelings. . . . Reading, for me, is a distraction from the hard work of writing, and since it is so worthy of an activity, I feel justified and redeemed. I even read and study as a way to fool myself into thinking I am practicing faith; when really, I am just reading about someone else’s spiritual practice.” [HT: Rachel A. Dawson]
Faces in Prayer: Photography by Katharina Heigl, Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna, December 5, 2019–March 24, 2020: A series of thirty-one intimate black-and-white photographs showing people of different faiths in prayer. To capture these shots, photographer Katharina Heigl visited churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship in Austria and Israel, but, important to the display, there are no labels to tell you who is praying to which god(s). That’s because Heigl wishes to emphasize the universality of the human impulse to communicate with the Divine. There are signs, however, that reproduce quotes from anonymous sources, printed in German, English, Hebrew, and Arabic, such as “Prayer is like an oasis of calm inside me. Like a tree giving me shade.” [HT: ArtWay]
To Bough and To Bend, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, March 11–April 25, 2020: Officially launched last October, Bridge Projects is an LA exhibition space with public programs connecting art history, spirituality, living religious traditions, and contemporary art practices. Their second exhibition, To Bough and To Bend, opens Wednesday, with thirty-two participating artists.
“The Tree of Life is found in both the beginning of the Jewish Tanakh and in the last book of the Christian Scriptures. The Bodhi Tree is said to be the site of Siddhārtha Gautama’s awakening as the Buddha. Ancient Chinook prayers address God as the ‘Maker of Trees.’ As the novelist Richard Powers said, trees are rightly called ‘architecture of imagination.’ Their shade and branches have been sites of contemplation, suffering, and imagining our renewal.
“Today, trees still speak: blunt stumps communicate deforestation and charred limbs speak of Los Angeles fires started by our own hands—or our negligence. New discoveries of communicating root systems speak to a tangled web of connections just below the surface of the visible world, just as LA’s iconic—and imported—palms evoke a colonial past. In To Bough and To Bend, artists explore these ecological issues and look to both religious and contemporary art practices that help us listen to these old friends, so that we might relearn to ‘walk slowly and bow often’ and find our way back into the living world we share.”
The opening celebration on March 14 will consist of a communal poetry reading followed by a Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees) ritual presentation by community organizer Michal David. Other events are: “Called to Shine: Trees in Myth, Symbol, and Art”; a live interview with artist Lucas Reiner on his Trees as Stations of the Crossproject; a talk on indigenous trees of Southern California, given by a member of the Tongva tribe; a discussion of art’s role in nature preservation; a lecture by Dr. Kimberly Ball on Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Norse mythology; “Paradise and Agony in the Garden: Sacred Trees in Italian Renaissance Art”; Dr. Duncan Ryūken Williams on the intersections of Buddhism and ecology; a bonsai demonstration; and a poetry reading and song performance by Iranian-born writer Sholeh Wolpé.
NEW ALBUMS: Both these were released in January.
Old Wow by Sam Lee: An avid collector and reinterpreter of traditional songs, Britfolk artist Sam Lee is acclaimed for “breaking the boundaries between folk and contemporary music and the assumed place and way folksong is heard . . . not only inviting in a new listenership but also interrogating what the messages in these old songs hold for us today.” He studied under the Scottish storyteller and ballad singer Stanley Robertson (1940–2009) and, in addition to singing, plays the Jew’s harp and the Indian shruti box. Other instruments in his unique fusion include the klezmeresque cello, tabla, Japanese koto, ukulele, violins, and percussion.
Below are two music videos from his latest album, Old Wow. The first is “Lay This Body Down,” a song about death; in the choreographed video, Lee is tugged and caressed by a gaggle of deceased souls, who at the end enfold him in the ground. “The Moon Shines Bright,” on the other hand, which features Elizabeth Fraser, is about life: its call (fitting for Lent) is to “Rise, arise, wake thee, arise / Life, she is calling thee / For it might be the mothering of your sweet soul / If you open your eyes and see.” I’ve heard many different iterations of this song, which usually appears on Advent/Christmas albums with verses about the Nativity, Crucifixion, etc., but this adaptation was gifted to Lee by an elderly Gypsy woman named Freda Black and is absent of overt Christological references.
Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters: The Pharaoh Sisters is a folk outfit from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, whose debut album has arrived! Influenced by the mountain, old-time, and gospel traditions, the band consists of Austin Pfeiffer on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Jared Meyer on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, Kevin Beck on lap steel guitar, and John Daniel Ray on upright bass. “Their music blends the cowboy sensibilities of Western-native frontman and lyricist Austin Pfeiffer with the Appalachian traditions of dark imagery and poignant guitars from their current home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.”
The biblical narrative is deeply embedded in the album, with many sideways references to specific scriptures. Topography is used symbolically throughout—fissures, canyons, mountains—and helps establish the central metaphor of Jesus as a pioneer, opening up a new frontier for us, leading us through the wilderness into the land of promise.
The album’s title, Civil Dawn, is a scientific term referring to when the center of the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon in the morning—in other words, the moment before the sun rises. The first song, which muses on the paradoxical character of Jesus, ends with a yearning for “Healing wings / Righteous sun,” a subtle nod to Malachi 4:2. That leads into “Awake, my soul, to the sun,” a prayer that we would incline ourselves toward the Light that’s already shining. As the journey continues, there’s darkness, dryness, a feeling of lostness and thirst. But we are not abandoned by our co-traveler, who is our light, our rest and refreshment, our way-maker. The last song, “Homecoming,” celebrates the “pioneer man with sun-scorched hands” who “guides on a trail he’s blazed”—an evocative image, which makes me think of Christ’s glorious wounds (in many traditional religious paintings, the nail prints emit light), but also, in light of the whole record, Isaiah 58:11: “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
After nudges from several readers, I’ve decided to join Instagram! Follow me @art_and_theology. I’m still trying to settle on how I’d like to use the platform, but in the meantime, I’ve been sharing photos I’ve taken on visits to art museums and spaces that house sacred art. (And in case you don’t already know, Art & Theology is also on Facebook and Twitter.)
DANCE: “Sign of the Times,” choreographed by Travis Wall: Premiering August 19, 2019, on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance (season 16, episode 11), this contemporary dance piece is choreographer Travis Wall’s response to the gun violence epidemic in America. It’s a communal lament through movement, really—an expression of fear, sadness, pain, anger, frustration, and defiance. It is performed by this season’s “top ten”: Benjamin Castro, Gino Cosculluela, Eddie Hoyt, Madison Jordan, Anna Linstruth, Bailey Muñoz, Sophie Pittman, Mariah Russell, Ezra Sosa, and Stephanie Sosa.
FEATURED POET: Marjorie Maddox: The latest installment of Abbey of the Arts’ Featured Poet series is, as usual, wonderful! I’ve read some of Maddox’s poems in magazines and anthologies but haven’t yet gotten my hands on one of her collections. This feature has incentivized me to request a copy of Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation through my local library.
“The work of poetry,” Maddox writes, is “empathy and epiphany. The process of writing and reading allows us to better understand this world and the next. Poetry connects the local and universal, the mundane and the miraculous. It gives us those ears to hear and eyes to see that we might, then, head back into the turning world sustained, nourished, and willing to learn more. And will this not lead us to the Sacred? Yes, I say. Yes.”
ESSAY: “Acts of Attention: On Poetry and Spirituality” by Robert Cording: I really enjoyed this essay from Image journal about the importance of attending to the world. “Attention is simply a loving look at what is,” writes Cording, a poet and birdwatcher. He discusses seeing not as a physiological act but as perceiving the fullness that exists in each moment. “Seeing is impossible without love or reverence,” he says. Along the way he engages with Marie Howe, Aristotle, Emerson and Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin, Heidegger, Hopkins, Czesław Miłosz, and Marilynne Robinson. He also walks us through three poems: Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Wallace Stevens’s “Man on the Dump,” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Pitchfork.” So much goodness here!
EXHIBITION: Abraham: Out of One, Many, curated by Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler of Caravan: Caravan is an international nonprofit that uses the arts to build sustainable peace around the world. “Our peacebuilding work is based on the belief that the arts can serve as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing, and facilitate friendship between diverse peoples, cultures and faiths.”
Caravan’s current exhibition is built around Abraham, a key ancestral figure shared by the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Caravan commissioned three Middle Eastern artists, one from each of these faith traditions, to each create five paintings on these subjects: Living as a Pilgrim, Welcoming the Stranger, Sacrificial Love, The Compassionate, and A Friend of God. The exhibition of resulting works opened May 3 at St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome. From there it has traveled to Paris and Edinburgh and, starting September 8, will be in the States, touring through 2021 with stops in Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, DC, Chicago, and more (see schedule). There’s an excellent digital catalog available, which contains full-color reproductions and descriptions of all fifteen paintings.
MUSICAL: In the Green by Grace McLean:Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 produces shows by new playwrights, directors, and designers, and for this summer, they commissioned a musical about the twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. (It finished its run on August 4, so I’m late in publicizing it—sorry!) A Benedictine nun and later abbess, Hildegard was also a composer, poet, dramatist, theologian, botanist, and healer—a true polymath. In the Green focuses on her relationship with her mentor, Jutta, just six years her senior.
Here’s Grace McLean, the show’s lyricist, composer, playwright, and player of Jutta, performing “Eve” (which uses looping technology!), followed by a short conversation between her and one of the other cast members. [HT: Still Life]
NEW PHOTOGRAPH SERIES:“The Four Freedoms” by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur: In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations share Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This famous speech became the basis for Norman Rockwell’s set of four illustrations, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, that have become some of history’s most iconic representations of the American idea.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Emily Shur decided to reimagine these scenes with a cast that’s more representative of American diversity. One of the eighty-two final images they created is published on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine. It and others will form the backbone of a national billboard campaign by the nonpartisan organization For Freedoms to encourage civic engagement. “We believe that if artists’ voices replace advertising across the country, public discourse will become more nuanced,” their website says.
IN CONCERT: Eric and I went to see brother-sister folk duo The Oh Hellos (Tyler Heath and Maggie Heath Chance) in Baltimore earlier this month and had a great time. My favorite song from their set list was “Soldier, Poet, King,” which describes Jesus’s coming in all three roles—perfectly appropriate for the upcoming Advent season! Jesus, the Word of God, comes to tear down Satan’s kingdom and establish his just rule in our lives and world (1 John 3:8b; Rev. 19:11–16). The final verse affirms Jesus’s status as Messiah, the waited-for “Anointed One,” and celebrates his power marked by humility, even unto death. The blood he wears into battle is his own.
There will come a soldier
Who carries a mighty sword
He will tear your city down
O lei o lai o lord
There will come a poet
Whose weapon is his word
He will slay you with his tongue
O lei o lai o lord
There will come a ruler
Whose brow is laid in thorn
Smeared with oil like David’s boy
O lei o lai o lord
The Oh Hellos’ nationwide tour continues through the end of the year, so visit their website to see if they’ll be stopping near you.
NEW ALBUM: Crumbs by Liturgical Folk: Liturgical Folk (previously here and here) released its third album this month, which “build[s] on the themes of eucharist and the mission of the church to bring peace and reconciliation to the world.” The title comes from the track “Prayer of Humble Access,” a verbatim setting from the “Holy Eucharist Rite I” in the Book of Common Prayer that alludes to the story of the Syrophoenician woman.
Most of the song texts on the album come from that traditional Anglican prayer-book and were set to music by Ryan Flanigan, though a few texts are contemporary. “Lord, Lord, Lord,” for example, was written in the wake of the August 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid the subsequent escalation of racial tensions in the country. “As a privileged, white, middle class, American man,” Flanigan wrote,
I felt for the first time in my life the systemic injustice against black males in our country. What I found most troubling, besides death itself, was the response of some white, privileged people to the shooting, particularly the response of some Christians on social media and the News. When we should have been mourning with those who mourn, confessing our fears and sins, and seeking reconciliation, many of us turned a blind eye or, worse, assumed a posture of defensiveness and denial. I wrote this song as a corporate confession of sin to God and our fellow men, a plea for God to forgive us and restore our broken trust with him and with those we’ve failed to love.
The first person to photograph a single snowflake, . . . Wilson A. Bentley used a microscope with his bellows camera—plus years of trial and error—to get a photo of one flake in 1885. But he didn’t stop there. Bentley went on to take thousands more, . . . which helped support the belief that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1903, he sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian, hoping they might be of interest to our Secretary. The images are now part of the Smithsonian Archives.
BALKAN ICON:“Transforming a Parable: The Good Samaritan”: Run by David Coomler, a museum researcher, Icons and Their Interpretations discusses aspects of traditional Russian, Greek, and Balkan iconography, inviting people to submit photos of icons for identification of subject or meaning, and translation of inscriptions. Recently he wrote about a fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox fresco that, like many of the church fathers, promotes an allegorical reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. In this interpretation, the man en route to Jerusalem is Adam, or Everyman, who is beaten by demons; the priest and the Levite represent the law of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot help the wounded man. But the “good Samaritan,” Jesus, stoops down to save, carrying the man not on a beast of burden but on his own back, to an “inn,” the church. He hands two “coins,” the Bible and tradition, to the innkeeper, and promises to return. See further image details and commentary at the web link above.
OBITUARY: Christian composer Kurt Kaiser dies at 83: On November 12, Kaiser passed away at his home in Waco, Texas, after a six-decade-long career in composing, playing, arranging, and producing Christian music. A Gospel Music Hall of Famer and a progenitor of CCM, he’s best known for his song “Pass It On,” but I know him for “Oh How He Loves You and Me,” two renditions of which are posted below; the first is a solo performance by Vanessa Williams with gospel piano accompaniment by Richard Smallwood, and the second is performed a capella in four-part harmony by Kaoma Chende with the use of overdubbing.
James Webb: Prayer,Art Institute of Chicago, September 6–December 31, 2018: A sound installation that began, said the artist, with the question “What would it be like to listen to all the prayers of a city simultaneously?” “Prayer is an ongoing project, remade around the world since its first presentation in Webb’s home city of Cape Town in 2000. The Chicago version is the 10th and largest to date, as well as the first in North America. The work consists of recordings of prayer from individuals who belong to dozens of faiths and spiritual affinities in the host city. Listeners are invited to remove their shoes and walk the length of the carpet . . . or to kneel or otherwise lower themselves next to a speaker to listen more closely to particular prayers.”
In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Steve Johnson interviewed several listener-participants. One woman said she stumbled into the museum after missing her train stop on her way home from work; it was a fortuitous accident, she said, because she had been feeling overwhelmed by the suffering in the city (addiction, gun violence, etc.), and hearing the praying, singing, chanting in the gallery helped give her hope.
Click here to see a short video feature of the Stockholm version of Prayer, which took place last year.
Encounters,St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, September 18–November 19, 2018: For the past decade, artist and visual social historian Nicola Green has been granted access to private meetings between religious leaders around the world from a variety of faith traditions. These meetings have gone largely unreported in the media, and there has been limited reflection on the encouraging trend they represent. To help remedy the situation, Green has produced thirty-one portraits depicting leaders like Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, Emeritus Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and many more—each set against a unique patterned background inspired by liturgical vestments or objects, manuscript illuminations, or sacred architecture particular to the sitter. The faces are obscured to prompt reflection on the relationship between the individual and his office.
“Green makes a compelling case through her art and writings that we have entered a new era in interreligious relations. What is remarkable today is the depth of relationships being formed by faith leaders across historically deep divides. . . . At its heart, the Encounters project is an exploration of difference. It asks: How can people of different faiths, or none, communicate strongly held convictions, whilst respectfully allowing others to do the same? What can be gained from such encounters, and how can we identify common goals whilst working from different perspectives? And how can deep religious commitments become an asset rather than an impediment to understanding and appreciating diversity? Green invites viewers to think about our relationship to those we consider wholly ‘other’ to ourselves, and how this, in turn, shapes our own identity.”
Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 22, 2018–January 13, 2019: “This is the first major exhibition to explore the remarkable artistic and cultural achievements of the Armenian people in a global context over fourteen centuries—from the fourth century, when the Armenians converted to Christianity in their homeland at the base of Mount Ararat, to the seventeenth century, when Armenian control of global trade routes first brought books printed in Armenian into the region. Through some 140 objects—including opulent gilded reliquaries, richly illuminated manuscripts, rare textiles, cross stones (khachkars), precious liturgical furnishings, church models, and printed books—the exhibition demonstrates how Armenians developed a unique Christian identity that linked their widespread communities over the years.”
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,British Library, London, October 19, 2018–February 19, 2019: This “largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, spanning all six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest,” brings together art objects, manuscripts, and other artifacts from various European collections and from the British Library itself. Because Christianization of the kingdom began in the sixth century, much of its art reflects that. Two highlights are the Codex Amiatinus (a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716 as a gift to the pope and returning to England for the first time since) and the Lindisfarne Gospels (the earliest surviving example of the Gospel texts in English and an exemplary fusion of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Pictish, and Mediterranean art styles)—which will be the subject of a lecture on Monday.
Attending: Paintings and Prints by Julie Shelton Snyder, Gallery at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia, October 26–December 22, 2018: This exhibition features new work by the artist completed during her residency at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, which she spent studying the mokuhanga traditional woodblock printmaking technique. “In my work,” says Snyder, “I explore movement and stillness, being in control and letting go. . . . My longing for stillness is a physical and spiritual quest, and this quest has led me to the practice of Centering Prayer. Through art making, I am given the means to express spiritual truths I cannot otherwise articulate. Expressing the ineffable and the invisible is the aim of my work, and I view abstraction as the best means for this expression.”
Accompanying the exhibition is a series of events, including workshops, prayer services, and, on December 2, “Attending to Advent: A Multisensory Advent Experience”—which I will be, ahem, attending.
The Renaissance Nude,J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, October 30, 2018–January 27, 2019: “Inspired by a renewed interest in classical sculpture and closer study of nature, Renaissance artists made the nude body ever more vibrant, lifelike, and central to their practice. Yet, pious European Renaissance society was troubled by the nude and its new sensuality—a conflicted response echoed in the world today, where images of nudity have become ubiquitous. This exhibition, with more than 100 objects by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Dürer, and others, traces the nude’s controversial emergence and its transformative effect on European art and culture.”
It was interesting to hear from curator Thomas Kren that “artists’ and viewers’ attitudes toward the nude were as varied and complex centuries ago as they are today,” provoking conflicting feelings of shame, admiration, curiosity, desire, disgust, anger. Learn more in his fascinating Getty blog post “Deconstructing Myths about the Nude in Renaissance Art,” and in the catalog he edited. Also worth checking out is the blog post by art historian Jill Burke: “Sex, Power, and Violence in the Renaissance Nude.” The exhibition focuses on the period 1400–1530, but even within that narrow slice of history, the unclothed body, male and female, functioned in diverse ways in art.
A large number of biblical figures are represented in the exhibition’s list of artworks, including Adam and Eve, Job, Bathsheba, Mary and the infant Christ, Christ at his baptism and in his passion, and the saved and the damned on the last day, as well as extrabiblical martyrs (especially Saint Sebastian) and devout ascetics.
POETRY BOOKS: I just learned about some recently released poetry collections in the Christian Century’s Book Reviews section: Joy: 100 Poems, compiled by Christian Wiman (the review responds to the comment Adrianna Smith made in her otherwise positive review for the Atlantic, that the book’s one fault is its “slant toward a theological comprehension of joy, specifically, an over-representation of a Christian one”); Wade in the Water: Poems by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith; and Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul, a collection of verse-style renderings of the thirteenth-century German Christian mystic by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows, like this one:
“You Are Not an Answer”
There is no Why in You
and so I must learn to trust
that You are not an answer
to my questions but rather
the source that is true before
every question I ever had
and the love beyond every
answer I will ever know.
SONG: “Heaven Help Us All”: This a cappella Stevie Wonder cover is by the vocal group Accent, featuring guest singer Vanessa Haynes. Comprising six male vocalists from five different countries, Accent creates music through Internet collaboration. This song is an intercession to God on behalf of the desperate poor, the homeless, the abused, the lonely, and the depressed. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“Pathways to Paradise: Medieval India and Europe,” Getty Museum, Los Angeles, May 1–August 5, 2018: “The pages of medieval manuscripts reveal a dynamically interconnected world filled with real and imagined ideas about foreign peoples and places. Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians living across Europe and Asia conceived paradise as a place of perfect harmony, but the path for locating such a site or achieving this state of mind varied between these religions. By exploring the terrestrial and celestial realms, this exhibition highlights the spiritual motivations for creating and owning portable and devotional artworks.”
“Shared Sacred Sites,” Manhattan, March 27–June 30, 2018: Spread across three Manhattan cultural institutions, the multidisciplinary exhibition “Shared Sacred Sites” aims to raise awareness of the potential for cooperation among the three Abrahamic faiths. The tour begins at the New York Public Library with illuminated manuscripts and documents that highlight holy figures shared in common, like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and (between Christianity and Islam) Mary and Jesus. The Muslim miniature below shows the Miracle of the Table recounted in the Qur’an (5:111–114), in which ’Isa (Jesus) causes a table set with food to descend from heaven, corroborating his status as a true prophet. This miracle story echoes the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes in the Gospels.
Then it moves to the Morgan Library and Museum, where the celebrated Morgan Picture Bible, produced in thirteenth-century Paris, is on display. This masterpiece of Gothic art offers exquisite visualizations of some three hundred Old Testament scenes (one of which I featured on the last “Artful Devotion”), and it’s also a testament to intercultural exchange: as the book circulated across civilizations, explanatory captions in Latin, Persian, Arabic, Judeo-Persian, and Hebrew were added in the margins.
Lastly, the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center presents artifacts, videos, contemporary art, and photographs that showcase examples of peaceful coexistence of people from different faiths throughout the Eastern Mediterranean as a counternarrative to the stories of conflict that saturate the news media. Several of the photos are of shared worship spaces, like the mosque-synagogue in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron, West Bank, or Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, where Muslims can often be found praying alongside Jewish friends and neighbors or attending pilgrimage ceremonies. (For more on Djerba’s beautiful culture of religious tolerance, see “Jews and Muslims Celebrate Unusual Coexistence in Tunisia’s Djerba.”)
FREE ALBUM DOWNLOADS:
Weep + Rejoiceby Trenton Durham: This four-track EP was released in March as a series of soft-rock meditations on Christ’s death and resurrection.
Top of the Stairs by Scott Mulvahill: Mulvahill is a singer-songwriter and upright bass player from Nashville who toured for five years with Ricky Skaggs’s bluegrass band, Kentucky Thunder. “The Lord Is Coming,” which Mulvahill wrote with Alanna Boudreau and Gabi Wilson, is one of eight songs on his latest EP. See below for a live performance from 2017 with two backing vocalists, or click here for a more recent solo performance from the Tokens Show, uploaded yesterday.
Volume 2by Deeper Well Records: Five Deeper Well artists have contributed two songs each to this compilation of acoustic hymns, a mix of classics, like “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” and “This Is My Father’s World,” and originals. I can’t speak highly enough of this label—the quality of music they release is superb. You can stream all the full songs on Bandcamp.
Christian confessions, Jewish prayers, Islamic surahs, Buddhist sutras, and Vedic Sanskrit hymns are de- and re-constructed in contemporary artist Meg Hitchcock’s typographic collages—or “text drawings,” as she calls them. Seeking to highlight the beauty of the world’s various religions, she cuts individual letters from one religious text and then rearranges them on paper in an intricate pattern that spells out the beliefs of another tradition. The continuous, run-on line, which weaves in and out without spaces or punctuation, creates a “visual mantra of devotion,” Hitchcock says.
When asked how she responds to reactions of horror that she is cutting up and reauthoring the word of God, she said, “I’m very respectful of a person’s faith, and would never intentionally insult anyone. If my work is seen as an affront, it’s only because that person hasn’t heard the meaning behind the work. In short, I don’t see it as a desecration, but a celebration of the word of God.” (Read the full interview at StudioInternational.com.)
Hitchcock was raised Methodist. She had a “born-again experience” (her words) at age twelve and continued in that profession until age thirty, when she decided to step away from the faith. Now, she says, she’s not religious or even spiritual, but she’s definitely “not an atheist.” She says she follows a “pathless path.”
Despite the distance she keeps from organized religion, she is fascinated, she says, by its texts—not necessarily what they say, but what they mean to the people who deem them sacred. The words are so alive and true to communities of believers who recite them, sing them, chant them, pray them with all their heart and soul. People seek direction through these words. They seek comfort and healing. They seek meaning, and self-definition. And in the seeking, believers across all faith traditions are united. It’s this universal impulse—to connect with something larger than ourselves—that Hitchcock wants to explore.