Down the Road (Artful Devotion)

Two Sons by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Two Sons, 2002. Oil on canvas, 24 × 84 in.

Once there was this man who had two sons. One day the younger son came to his father and said, “Father, eventually I’m going to inherit my share of your estate. Rather than waiting until you die, I want you to give me my share now.” And so the father liquidated assets and divided them. A few days passed and this younger son gathered all his wealth and set off on a journey to a distant land. Once there he wasted everything he owned on wild living. He was broke, a terrible famine struck that land, and he felt desperately hungry and in need. He got a job with one of the locals, who sent him into the fields to feed the pigs. The young man felt so miserably hungry that he wished he could eat the slop the pigs were eating. Nobody gave him anything.

So he had this moment of self-reflection: “What am I doing here? Back home, my father’s hired servants have plenty of food. Why am I here starving to death?I’ll get up and return to my father, and I’ll say, ‘Father, I have done wrong—wrong against God and against you.I have forfeited any right to be treated like your son, but I’m wondering if you’d treat me as one of your hired servants?’”So he got up and returned to his father. The father looked off in the distance and saw the young man returning. He felt compassion for his son and ran out to him, enfolded him in an embrace, and kissed him.

The son said, “Father, I have done a terrible wrong in God’s sight and in your sight too. I have forfeited any right to be treated as your son.”

But the father turned to his servants and said, “Quick! Bring the best robe we have and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet.Go get the fattest calf and butcher it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate because my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and has been found.” So they had this huge party.

Now the man’s older son was still out in the fields working. He came home at the end of the day and heard music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. The servant said, “Your brother has returned, and your father has butchered the fattest calf to celebrate his safe return.”

The older brother got really angry and refused to come inside, so his father came out and pleaded with him to join the celebration. But he argued back, “Listen, all these years I’ve worked hard for you. I’ve never disobeyed one of your orders. But how many times have you even given me a little goat to roast for a party with my friends? Not once! This is not fair! So this son of yours comes, this wasteful delinquent who has spent your hard-earned wealth on loose women, and what do you do? You butcher the fattest calf from our herd!”

The father replied, “My son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours. Isn’t it right to join in the celebration and be happy? This is your brother we’re talking about. He was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found again!”

—Luke 15:11–32 (The Voice)

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SONG: “Prodigal Son” by Robert Wilkins, on Reverend Robert Wilkins—Memphis Gospel Singer (1964); re-released on Prodigal Son (2014)

Robert Timothy Wilkins (1896–1987) was a gospel blues guitarist and vocalist and a minister of the Church of God in Christ. Part African American, part Cherokee, he was born in Mississippi but spent his entire adult life in Memphis, where he became fairly well known for his music. In 1929 he wrote and recorded the predecessor to “Prodigal Son”: same melody and guitar lines, but with lyrics that bemoan cheating women, and he called it “That’s No Way to Get Along.” After he “got religion” (that is, converted to Christianity) in 1936, he gave up singing secular songs. He’d still play them on his guitar for private audiences—it was only the words he deemed sinful—and he even reworked several by replacing his original lyrics with religious ones, as was the case with “That’s No Way to Get Along,” which he retitled “Prodigal Son” and transformed into a retelling of the biblical parable. [Read the lyrics]

We probably would have never heard these gospel songs from Wilkins’s later years if it weren’t for American folk musicologist Dick Spottswood, who in the 1960s combed the South looking for blues singers whose decades-old 78s he had encountered, seeking to record new performances. Wilkins was in his seventies, but he agreed to perform for a recording (and subsequently, for the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island), insisting that he would do only gospel. The resultant album, released in 1964 by Piedmont Records, was Reverend Robert Wilkins—Memphis Gospel Singer, on which “Prodigal Son” first appears. The song was remastered, restored, and re-released in 2014 on a compilation album of Wilkins material, Prodigal Son, which adds four uncollected gospel songs to the original album’s track list.

Aaron Frazer at Black Grooves writes,

The song [“Prodigal Son”] did not appear in Wilkins’ church services, as it was deemed not exciting enough for his congregants. Instead, the piece was reserved as a late-night solo, played for small audiences in the comfort of his living room. The quiet picking, repetitious bass note run and Wilkins contemplative drawl make for a hypnotic mix and the quickest 10-minute song I’ve ever encountered. The open tuning allows for a richer low end and frees Wilkins’ left hand to speak easily with his slide.

Wilkins recorded “Prodigal Son” in 1964, but it wasn’t until 1968, when the Rolling Stones covered it on Beggars Banquet, that it gained a wide audience. They condensed the ten-minute song to just under three minutes, and I think they do quite a fine job with it. Royalties generated by sales of Beggars Banquet created a solid supplemental income for Wilkins until his death in 1987.

The Rolling Stones are heavily influenced by blues music (their name comes from a Muddy Waters song) and have done much to keep it alive and expand its popularity. Keith Richards says, “If you don’t know the blues . . . there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

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The parable of the prodigal son—or, perhaps more accurately, the parable of the two sons—is a familiar one, and artist James B. Janknegt (previously) interprets it visually for the present day, localizing it to his native Texas.

After insulting his father and taking his money, the younger son flies off to pursue fleeting pleasures—strip clubs and all that. But those pleasures don’t satisfy. He ends up working at McDonald’s and, having squandered his wealth, is reduced to eating his meals from a dumpster. He feels cheap, trashy, and spiritually dry, as indicated by the cactus in the adjacent panel.

Janknegt, James B._Two Sons-001

Hungry for more, he decides to return home, so he hops on a bus, and when the bus can take him no farther, he hitchhikes, catching one, two, three rides, then walks the rest of the way until his shoes wear out. Finally he reaches the front-yard footpath of his father’s house, the dry ground he treads giving way to green grass that becomes increasingly lush the nearer he gets. Anticipating his return, the father comes running out to welcome him home with full forgiveness.

Janknegt, James B._Two Sons-002

But his big brother isn’t nearly as happy at this turn of events. Quite the contrary, he’s confused, upset: Why would Dad not punish little brother for his flagrant disrespect and waywardness? Why is he being thrown a party? In a fit of anger, he breaks the neck of his guitar across his thigh. Instead of joining the musical celebration, he stews in his own bitterness. His heart is as dead as the cattle skull at his feet.

Janknegt, James B._Two Sons-003

Still, the father looks on him lovingly, just as he does his other son, waiting patiently for him to experience a similar metanoia—a turning toward the light, a coming to the party.

Two Sons is one of forty of James B. Janknegt’s modernized parable paintings that appear in the book Lenten Meditations, which you can purchase from Jim’s website.


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 the Fourth Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Easter flash mob; Good Thief; Resurrection photo; Sistine Chapel frescoes in 3-D; etc.

FLASH MOB: On Easter 2011 at City Mall in Beirut, Lebanon, a flash mob broke out singing the Paschal troparion in Arabic: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life! [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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NEW PAINTING INSTALLED: James B. Janknegt is a Christian artist from Texas who is known for transposing biblical stories into contemporary American settings. He recently completed a large triptych for the new Unity Hall at Community First! Village in Austin, a planned community, developed by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, that provides affordable, permanent housing for the chronically homeless. (See the development and learn more about it in this short video, presented by MLF founder Alan Graham.) The painting shows Jesus in conversation with the “good thief” who, as he dies, acknowledges his crime and asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Behind him paradise flowers forth, indicating not only his new home but his inward regeneration. The other thief, by contrast, turns his head away in stubbornness. This episode demonstrates that repentance is always met by Christ with love, affirmation, and seeds of new life.

Good Thief by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Good Thief, 2018. Oil on three panels, 8 × 12 ft. Unity Hall, Community First! Village, Austin, Texas.

Good Thief by James B. Janknegt

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SHORT FILM: “Dance Dance” by French film director Thomas Blanchard evokes each of the four seasons through different elements acting on flowers, captured in either time lapse or slow motion. For fall, a rose is set on fire; for winter, foliage afloat in water becomes frozen in ice; for spring, lilies bloom; and for summer, colored inks hit the flowers and billow up in dusty clouds. Stunning images!

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CHAIYA ART AWARD FINALIST: The inaugural Chaiya Art Award competition ended last month, with the winner taking home £10,000 and being exhibited, along with forty-one other juried selections, at London’s gallery@oxo March 29–April 9. The theme was “Where Is God in Our Twenty-First-Century World?”

One entry I really love is finalist Sheona Beaumont’s Natal, a photographic work that shows a nude pregnant woman standing against a dark wall in profile, her hair blown wildly by a gust of wind, opposite a corpse. These are two different spaces set in juxtaposition—two photos stitched together. The black-and-white photo of the dead body, on the left, is Fred Holland Day’s The Entombment from 1898, in which he himself posed as Christ, laid out on a bier before a doorway, his crown of thorns and titulus crucis on the ground beside him. Beaumont rotated this horizontal image 90 degrees clockwise so that the Christ figure is propped upright. She then posed her female model to form a sort of mirror image, but one full of vitality; the woman’s belly, the site of new life about to be born, is brightly lit. This combination photograph makes a powerful Holy Saturday image, one that hints toward resurrection as the stillness gives way to stirrings. The photo is also an allusion to the new life believers have in Christ, and in fact it forms the first in a new series titled Born Again. Visit Beaumont’s website to view the artwork and to read a bit about her process and the meaning the work holds for her.

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EXHIBITION: “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle”: Last fall, Spanish Golden Age artist Francisco de Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons made its North American debut at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, traveling for the first time in centuries, and now the exhibition is at the Frick Collection in New York City—but only through the end of this week! Twelve of the thirteen paintings in the set are from Auckland Castle in County Durham, England, the residence of the eighteenth-century Anglican bishop Richard Trevor, who acquired them in 1756 and had them displayed in his dining room, where they have remained ever since. Trevor was outbid on the painting of Benjamin, however, which is on loan from Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, reuniting the set for the first time since the paintings’ 1756 sale.

Judah and Dan by Francisco de Zurbarán
Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664), Judah; Dan, 1640–44. Oil on canvas, 79 1/4 × 40 3/4 in. each. Photos: Robert LaPrelle.

The iconography of the paintings is derived from the prophecies Jacob utters over each of his sons on his deathbed, as described in Genesis 49. For example, Judah, from whom “the scepter shall not depart,” holds said scepter and is regally draped in a gold brocade robe and fur that hint at his descendants kings David and Solomon (Zurbarán was the son of a haberdasher, and gave great care to the depiction of textiles); Dan, on the other hand, holds up a serpent on a stick, alluding to his craftiness. To view all the paintings, click here.

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3-D SHOW: As of last month and through the end of July, Artainment Worldwide Shows, in cooperation with the Vatican Museums, presents “Giudizio universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel” by Marco Balich, an immersive 3-D show that brings to life Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes inside the Rome Conciliation Auditorium. Half the room is covered, from the walls to the ceiling, with a 270-degree screen that projects extremely high-res photos of the paintings, dramatized through movement, music, lighting, sound effects, narration, live actors, and dance. Lasting sixty minutes, the show concludes with the thirteenth-century Latin hymn Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), set to new music by Sting and arranged for chamber orchestra and choir by Rob Mathieson. Watch the trailer below, or click here to see some of the 3-D animation of the Last Judgment.

 

Art resources for Lent

As you may have noticed, I’ve had to ease up lately on my self-imposed one-post-a-week rule to accommodate other projects. For February and March, I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday school course at my church called “Art and the Church: Seeing the Sacred in Global Christian Art”; I have a really great group of people exploring the topic with me, and I’ve enjoyed seeing which images they respond to most. I’ve also been invited by three separate entities to produce content on their platforms this spring: by a missions organization, to curate an online gallery of Passion art; by a divinity school, to write a post for its blog; and by a Christian ministry at Brown University, to deliver a talk to undergraduates. Moreover, I just returned from a trip to California, where I attended a Biola University–sponsored art symposium called “Art in a Postsecular Age”; I got to meet Matthew Milliner and Jonathan Anderson and hear from a panel of other distinguished speakers.

So, while I had every intention of getting this list out last week to coincide with the start of Lent, slide preparations, permissions e-mails, and travels have claimed my focus. I regret that all this revving up has come during a season dedicated to slowing down. Please forgive the slackness, but I’ve decided to practice the “holy pause” for the next forty days (through Easter Sunday). To fast from my obsession with productivity. I will still honor my obligation to those who have commissioned me for specific tasks, but I will be lightening up on the frequency of blog posts. In lieu of Lent-related Art & Theology content, I lift up the following supports for your journey.

Online devotional with visual art and music: Each Lenten season since 2012, Kevin Greene, an associate pastor at West End Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, has published an online devotional that comprises for each day an art image, a short scripture reading, a prayer, and a music file. I absolutely love this model, with its spare style: because the entries are light on text, they invite silence, contemplation, seeing, listening. Greene’s image selection is stellar. He doesn’t go for the obvious choices but rather aims at something more atmospheric, more slant. Among the painted subjects, for example, you’ll find a stairway, a storm, a dancer, a reaper; day 1, Ash Wednesday, was a sailboat on troubled waters (pictured below). Fine-art viewing isn’t something that’s typically a part of Protestant devotional practice, so in response to questions he’s received, Greene has described how art operates on the imagination and the spirit. I’ve been greatly blessed moving through the first week of Lent with this companion, and I can’t wait to dive into the backlist entries later on. You can sign up via e-mail in the left sidebar, or simply bookmark the website and visit it each morning.

Dark Red Sea by Emil Nolde
Emil Nolde (German, 1867–1956), Dark Red Sea, ca. 1938. Watercolor. Nolde Museum, Seebüll, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.

Lent Photo Challenge: The UK-based Bible Society invites people to take one photo per day throughout the season based on rotating themes (e.g., wilderness, hospitality, ask), then share them on social media using the hashtag #LentChallenge. Today is the sixth day of Lent (Sundays are excluded from the traditional forty-day count), and the assigned theme is “fear.”

#LentChallenge

Essays, short stories, poems, art: Founded in 1989, Image journal seeks “to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture.” This Lent they’ve curated a selection of literary essays, short stories, poems, and art images from their back issues and their blog, Good Letters, that relate to the season, as well as to Easter. I especially enjoyed “Jeffrey Mongrain: An Iconography of Eloquence.” A few selections might be accessible only to subscribers (you can subscribe here; you won’t be disappointed!). Also available: the book God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, a full-color devotional with contributions by some of Image’s favorites. Lent is not about becoming lost in our brokenness, the description says, but about cleansing the palate so that we can taste life more fully.

Blood Pool by Jeffrey Mongrain
Jeffrey Mongrain (American, 1956–), Blood Pool, 2006. Plexiglas, 47 × 88 in. Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, Columbia, South Carolina.

“Lent Is Here to Throw Us Off Again: Finding healing in repetition, community, and art” by W. David O. Taylor: An excellent introduction to Lent, addressing unselfing, dying a good death, opening up vacant space, and praying with the eyes. This Christianity Today article is adapted from the foreword Taylor wrote for artist James B. Janknegt’s new book, Lenten Meditations, which features forty of Janknegt’s paintings on the parables of Jesus, along with written reflections. Artists like Janknegt, Taylor writes, “fix before us an image of a world broken by our own doing, but not abandoned by God. They question our habits of sight. They arrest our attention. See this image. See it for the first time, again. See what has become hidden and distorted. See the neglected things. See the small but good things. It is in this way that artists can rescue us from what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls the ‘film of familiarity’ and the ‘lethargy of custom.’”

Lenten Meditations by James B. Janknegt

Parable of the Wicked Tenants by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), The Wicked Tenants, 2008. Oil on canvas, 24 × 72 in.

Stations of the Cross in Washington, DC: This Lent, Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing of the Church of the Epiphany have organized a combination pilgrimage and art exhibition, featuring works located throughout Washington, DC, in places both sacred and secular. Mostly contemporary, some newly commissioned, the works include George Segal’s Depression Bread Line, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial by Glenna Goodacre, Barnett Newman’s Stations cycle at the National Gallery of Art, a video installation at First Congregational United Church of Christ by Leni Diner Dothan, and more. Participants can follow the stations by downloading the app “Alight: Art and the Sacred,” which offers maps and audio commentary (my friend Peggy Parker is a contributor!). (If you don’t have a smartphone, you can view the maps and listen to the commentary through a browser by following the primary link above.) Also check out the accompanying devotional guide.

Vietnam Women's Memorial by Glenna Goodacre
Glenna Goodacre (American, 1939–), Vietnam Women’s Memorial, 1993. Bronze. 5 Henry Bacon Drive, Washington, DC.

Lent by The Brilliance: This 2012 EP by The Brilliance, a duo comprising David Gungor and John Arndt, has seven tracks: “Dust We Are,” “Now and at the Hour of Our Death” (the rerelease on Brother removes the invocation to Mary), “Dayspring of Life,” “Does Your Heart Break?,” “Holy Communion,” “Violent Loving God,” and “Have You Forsaken Me?” Each one is a beautiful prayer, the words organized around a string quartet. Some take the shape of praise, others lament. God is supplicated for peace, mercy, light. The first track well captures the spirit of Lent: “Be still my soul and let it go, just let it go.” Click here to read a 2015 Hallels interview with The Brilliance, or here to listen to a podcast interview by David Santistevan.

A sweeping vision of all things made new

This Sunday’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary is Revelation 21:1–6, in which John describes the renewal of the entire created order:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”

Jesus’s resurrection was the beginning of a new creation that starts with man. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But whereas Paul is talking about individual renewal, the renewal that John envisions is all-encompassing, touching everything—“an external order in full correspondence with the new nature,” in the words of Alexander Maclaren.

Theologians disagree on whether the “new” in this Revelation passage indicates that the present heaven and earth will one day be destroyed and then newly created, or rather that heaven and earth will one day be utterly transformed, made new in nature or quality. I hold the latter view, and it appears that American artist James B. Janknegt does as well.

Make All Things New by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Make All Things New, 2005. Oil on canvas, 48 × 96 in.

Janknegt’s painting Make All Things New shows the risen Christ standing triumphantly over the pit of death and under the blessing hand of God, sweeping up the things of earth into a whirlpool of color. Birds, balls, and bicycles; musical instruments and charcoal grills; plants and houses, pets and people, mowers and swing sets—all are on their way to the New Jerusalem. Beauty, work, and play.

Also present in the cosmic swirl are a loaf of bread and a glass of wine, symbols of God’s broken body and spilt blood, the activators of the new covenant. These two objects are evidence on multiple levels that God does indeed transform: he transformed the shame of the cross into glory, and at the Communion table again and again he transforms common, earthly elements into means of grace.

I appreciate Janknegt’s portrayal (through the upside-down skyscrapers at the top of the painting) of heaven coming down to meet earth as it did in the beginning, a biblical truth that has far too often been misrepresented in Christian art, music, and teaching. The restoration of the union between heaven and earth is pretty much the Bible’s main theme—one that’s beautifully explained in The Bible Project’s video on heaven and earth in terms of overlap between two spaces. We won’t eventually leave one space to fly over to the other; instead, heaven and earth will become the same space.

This is a vision that we are called to live into now! As new creations, we orient ourselves around the risen Christ, and we practice resurrection wherever we go. This can mean anything from turning vacant lots into gardens to beating guns into farm tools (literally!) to building wells in villages without access to clean drinking water to fostering or adopting an abused child to supporting a friend through rehabilitation. Where there is death, we bring life.

Make All Things New is a picture of what God has started to do in the world and will one day accomplish completely, at which point we can say along with him in praise and celebration, “It is done!” In the meantime, let’s join him in his work.

This painting is available for sale on the artist’s website and is also offered as a print.