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.) 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.”

Girded with Joy (Artful Devotion)

Klee, Paul_Joyful Mountain Landscape
Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879–1940), Heitere Gebirgslandschaft (Joyful Mountain Landscape), 1929. Oil on board, 17 5/16 × 24 13/16 in. (43.9 × 63.1 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas;
the one who by his strength established the mountains,
being girded with might;
who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples,
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs.
You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.

You visit the earth and water it;
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide their grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

—Psalm 65:5–13

Psalm 65 is a such a magnificent praise song, and I especially love the expression in verse 12: “the hills gird themselves with joy” (ESV). Other translations have “the little hills rejoice on every side” (KJV), “the hillsides blossom with joy” (NLT), and “the hills [are set] to dancing” (MSG). The picture extends into the final verse, where, along with pastures, meadows, and valleys, the mountains “shout and sing” to their Creator. Last year when I saw Paul Klee’s Joyful Mountain Landscape at the Yale University Art Gallery, I instantly thought of this psalm—of how nature sings praises to God simply by being itself.

Human beings are called to join in creation’s joyful song.

[Related post: “Creation’s Praise” (Artful Devotion)]

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SONG: “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” | Words by Isaac Watts, 1715 | Music (tune: ELLACOMBE) from Gesangbuch der Herzogl, Württemberg, 1784

I sing the mighty power of God
that made the mountains rise,
that spread the flowing seas abroad
and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
the sun to rule the day;
the moon shines full at his command,
and all the stars obey.

I sing the goodness of the Lord
that filled the earth with food;
he formed the creatures with his word
and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how thy wonders are displayed,
where’er I turn my eye,
if I survey the ground I tread
or gaze upon the sky.

There’s not a plant or flower below
but makes thy glories known,
and clouds arise and tempests blow
by order from thy throne;
while all that borrows life from thee
is ever in thy care,
and everywhere that man can be,
thou, God, art present there.

For a fairly traditional rendition of this classic hymn, here’s a three-part a cappella arrangement performed by the Ball Brothers in 2012:

If you prefer a more modern sound, check out the version by Ben Thomas on the 2015 album Bring Forth. Thomas wrote a new melody for the song and recorded it under the title “I Sing the Goodness” (using the language of verse 2 instead of 1).

The whole Bring Forth album is great, which takes as its basis thirteen hymn lyrics dating from the fourth through twentieth centuries—“all seeking to find the Divine in the everyday elements of our existence,” Thomas says. Thomas adapted and retuned the hymns and released them in three movements that echo the cycle of time: Dawn, Day, and Dusk. To guide you through your listening, there is a meditation and prayer for each movement published on his website.

Other favorites of mine from the album are “Creator God, Creating Still,” “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” “Lord of All Being,” “Peace, Troubled Soul,” and “Bring Forth.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 10, cycle A, click here.

Highways to Zion (Artful Devotion)

Choumali, Joana_Ca Va Aller 54
Joana Choumali (Ivorian, 1974–), Ça Va Aller #54, 2018. iPhone photograph printed on cotton canvas and hand-embroidered with cotton, lurex, and wool thread, 9 2/5 × 9 2/5 in. (24 × 24 cm).

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

—Psalm 84:5 ESV

Alternate translation (NKJV):

Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

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SONG: “Marching to Zion” | Words: Isaac Watts, 1707, and Robert Lowry, 1867 (adapt.) | Music: Traditional black gospel | Performed by The Long Walk Home Gospel Choir, led by Dr. Clifford Bibb, on The Long Walk Home original motion picture soundtrack (1991)

I first heard this song years ago in the end credits of The Long Walk Home (1990), a historical drama film about the impact of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott on a black maid and her white employer. I was so moved by the spirited communal singing of this song about the people of God heading confidently through the fray of this world toward heaven, which alludes to the literal ascent of ancient Jewish pilgrims up the hill to Jerusalem. I looked up the song afterward to find that it is a gospelized adaptation of the Isaac Watts hymn “Come, we that love the Lord” and the nineteenth-century refrain added by Robert Lowry, which goes, in 6/8 time,

We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.

Writing during the rise of American revivalism, Lowry also gave the hymn the tune by which it is commonly known and sung today, reproduced in many hymnals. Despite my being raised Baptist, I never recall having sung this hymn before.

The version of the song used in The Long Walk Home has a completely different meter (4/4) and tune, and it also foregrounds this revised refrain:

We’re marching, marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God
We’re marching, marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God

Despite extensive searching, I’ve not been able to find the composer of this version. The soundtrack liner notes credit it as a “Traditional” arranged for the movie by Bernard Sneed, who’s on piano, and Dr. Clifford Bibb, the song leader. The version they’ve arranged almost surely originated in the black church in America and appears to have risen to popularity in the late 1940s. Some early recordings include the Roberta Martin Singers, feat. Eugene Smith (1953); the Blind Boys of Alabama (formerly the Happyland Singers), feat. Clarence Fountain (1954, 1971, etc.); Rev. James Cleveland; the Swan Silvertones; and the Ward Gospel Singers, feat. Viola Crowley (1963). These are all great—but I think I still like the Long Walk Home Gospel Choir recording the best. The intro and outro, which use other musical motives from the film, were composed by George Fenton, who wrote the score not only for this film but also for Dangerous Liaisons, Groundhog Day, You’ve Got Mail, Anna and the King, Sweet Home Alabama, Hitch, The Lady in the Van, and others.

The song also appears under the titles “We’re Marching to Zion,” “Marching Up to Zion,” or “Marching On to Zion.”

If you have any info on the history of, or piano music for, this particular version of the song, please do share! Black churches, from what I can tell, sing both versions, but all the hymnals I’ve consulted use Lowry’s version.

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Joana Choumali from Côte d’Ivoire is doing beautiful mixed-media work that combines photography and embroidery. The above work is from her series Ça va aller (“It will be OK”). She began this series three weeks after the 2016 terrorist attack in Grand-Bassam, a historic southeastern seaside town where she used to spend peaceful Sunday afternoons on the beach. With her iPhone, she took photos of residents going about their daily business in the aftermath of this traumatic event, bearing their melancholy quietly. She said that adding the colorful stitches to the printed photographs was healing for her and an act of defiant hope. View more on her website.

In Ça Va Aller #54, a man walks a dusty road that erupts before him into a spectacular upward whirl of tiny cross-shapes that evoke a flock of wild birds or flower blossoms. I see joy, I see hope. I see a man stepping into and being led forward by these virtues.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 25, cycle C, click here.