Roundup: Four talks and an interview

Hi friends. I’m preparing for a trip to Bangalore, India, later this month, to meet an artist whose work I admire, Jyoti Sahi [previously]. I apologize for being slow to respond to emails lately, but I do appreciate each and every message I receive from my readers! I read them all and will try my best to respond just as soon as I get the chance. Please note: email is the best way to get in touch with me, as I’ve found that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter messages tend to get buried under a slew of notifications and are harder for me to tag and track. Thank you again for your support of Art & Theology, and for all your questions, encouragements, personal introductions, invitations, and art recommendations.

In this roundup I want to share a few recorded lectures that I’ve listened to in the past month and have really enjoyed; I hope you will too. The first two are by art historians speaking to secular audiences at museums about the (Protestant) art of the Dutch Golden Age—which I saw a lot of this spring during my visit to the Netherlands! The second two are by Christian professors speaking at Christian academic institutions, from different angles, about prophetic art. And lastly, Biola University interviews Krista Tippett, one of my absolute favorite podcast hosts.

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“Dutch Art of the Golden Age, 1600–1675” by Dr. Eric Denker, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, July 14, 2019: In this hour-long lecture, Eric Denker discusses some of the highlights from the National Gallery of Art’s seventeenth-century Dutch art collection: paintings by Emanuel de Witte, Jan van der Heyden, Salomon van Ruysdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Ludolf Bakhuizen, Hendrick ter Brugghen (of the Utrecht Caravaggisti), Frans Hals, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Judith Leyster, Thomas de Keyser, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Willem Claesz Heda, Johannes Vermeer, Ambrosius Bosschaert, and Adriaen Coorte. These include scenes of everyday life (such as church and domestic interiors), landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.

Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte
Emanuel de Witte (Dutch, ca. 1616–1691/92), The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 31 11/16 × 39 3/8 in. (80.5 × 100 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I especially appreciated him pointing out details from de Witte’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, which brings together death (a burial plot has just been dug up under the stone floor, with a skull visible in the upturned dirt heap) and life (a woman nursing her infant on a bench at the right). Unlike the French and Italian painting of the time, Denker says, in Dutch painting “there is nothing too vulgar . . . to portray. They felt that they inhabited God’s world, and that everything that existed in that world was necessarily of God’s making.” Hence the dog relieving himself on a column!

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“Food for Thought: Pieter Claesz. and Dutch Still Life” by Dr. John Walsh, Yale University Art Gallery, September 25, 2015: The Dutch coined the word “still life” (stilleven) to describe pictures of things that are incapable of movement or that lack a soul. In the Dutch conception, such paintings weren’t just for looking at but also for meditating on; the aim, in other words, was visual pleasure and moral edification. John Walsh outlines various categories: vanitas paintings, breakfast pieces, kitchen still lifes, pipe-smoking pieces, arrangements of food and wares on a table, fruit pieces, compositions of dead game and weapons, and flowers.

Walsh discusses many different paintings in detail, by many different artists (not just by the premier one in the lecture title), including a few examples of contemporaneous still lifes from Italy and Spain. He really made them come alive for me! The feasts of meats and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, for example, with all their subtle richness of texture and color, are a celebration of God’s goodness. In honor of Thanksgiving in a few weeks, here’s Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Turkey Pie:

Claesz, Pieter_Still Life with a Turkey Pie
Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1597/98–1660), Still Life with a Turkey Pie, 1627. Oil on panel, 29 1/2 × 51 9/10 in. (75 × 132 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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“Practicing the Prophetic: Liturgy, Formation, and Discernment for Public Life” by Dr. James K. A. Smith, Seattle Pacific University, October 16, 2019: James K. A. Smith has made a name for himself writing about worship, worldview, and cultural formation, through such books as You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit and his Cultural Liturgies series. The first half of this talk, which starts at 6:15, is a good introduction to his work in that arena, as he discusses the liturgical nature of public life—how “the rhythms and rituals of public life aren’t just something we do; they are also doing something to us.” Cultural forces can de-form us, he says, in often insidious ways, such that we don’t even realize the deformation. Smith is all about getting us to take stock of what we’ve been conscripted to want, to love, to hope for; to perform a “liturgical analysis” on the social imaginary that we’ve absorbed through our culture’s images, stories, myths, rituals, practices, etc. And for a toolkit, he offers St. Augustine.

The second half of the talk (starting at about 33:40) is devoted to “the art of prophetic hope,” which “requires both the renewal of the Christian imagination and an outward offering of a Christian imagination for the sake of the world.” He continues: “What’s at stake in our liturgical formation is really a restorying of the imagination. It’s a restoring of the imagination because it’s a restorying of the imagination. And if Christianity has something to offer our neighbors, I think that will be most powerfully and prophetically embodied in the arts, which meet people on the register of the imagination.” I am always so compelled by Smith’s words; they’re all so quotable. But particularly germane to the Art & Theology project I have going here, and also to the upcoming Advent season, is what he says about a truly “Christian” art being that which holds together hurt and hope:

There is nothing more scandalous than Christian eschatology, I realize. And yet nothing speaks more directly to a hurtful and fearful world. This eschatological orientation, which is at the heart of the prophets, fuels art that is suspended between the already and the not yet. The unique imaginative capacity of the arts speaks to this ineffaceable human hunger for restoration even while honoring the heartbreak of our present pilgrimage. A Christian eschatology nourishes a distinct imagination that refuses to be constrained by the catalog of the currently available and instead imagines a world to come breaking into the present. Art that is infused with this eschatological imagination at once laments and hopes. In its lament, it honors our experience of brokenness, the heartbreak of the now. And in its hope, it gives voice to our longings. It neither wallows in romanticized tragedy nor escapes to sentimental naivete. Such eschatological art is like an embodied form of the Lord’s Prayer. Each such work is its own requiem, such that what Jan Swafford says of Mozart’s Requiem could be true of all such eschatological art. He says, “It’s full of death and hope, lacerating sorrow and uncanny beauty.”

I like this “uncanniness” metaphor. Uncanniness is an apt descriptor of such art that paints beauty with ashes, that can walk the soul through the valley of the shadow of death on the way to a feast in the wilderness. Such art stops us short in its uncanny, even paradoxical, ability to embody both hurt and hope.

By way of example, he discusses the Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans (1723–1751), who died in childbirth, along with her baby, on Holy Saturday; the Memorial to Fallen Workers in Hamilton, Ontario; and Sugar and Spice by Letitia Huckaby [previously].

Nahl, Johann August_Tomb of Madame Langhans
Johann August Nahl (German, 1710–1781), Tomb of Mme. Maria Magdalena Langhans, 1751–53. Sandstone. (This is an 18th-century replica; the original is in the village church of Hindelbank in Bern, Switzerland.)

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“Turn and Face the Strange: Thoughts on Ergonomics and Artistry” by Jeffrey Overstreet, Sacrament & Story conference, Brehm Cascadia, Bellevue, Washington, April 5, 2019: “This is a presentation about the courage that artists must have in order to behold, and then bear witness to, new visions of beauty and truth,” says film critic and professor Jeffrey Overstreet [previously here and here]. He teaches his students at Seattle Pacific University (a Christian institution) to ask, like Miles Morales, “What’s up, danger?” To go outside the walls, to the wild edges, and be still, and then to report on that encounter. Films he discusses, whose characters (or director) “go to the edge of the water,” so to speak, include Babette’s Feast, The Secret of Kells, The Fits, Moonrise Kingdom, and 24 Frames.

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An Interview with Krista Tippett by Jonathan A. Anderson, Biola University presidential luncheon, La Mirada, California, February 22, 2017: Journalist Krista Tippett is the most talented interviewer I know—time after time initiating open, hospitable, genuinely mutual conversations with a range of subjects. (It’s no wonder she’s won a Peabody Award and a National Humanities Medal! The latter for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”) Here Jonathan A. Anderson, the director of Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts, interviews her, and it’s so rich!

After graduating from Brown in 1983, Tippett became a foreign correspondent in divided Berlin. After years of that, she earned an MDiv from Yale. In 2003 she created the NPR show Speaking of Faith, which, despite initial skepticism from many corners, became wildly popular and evolved into On Being. Her upbringing was Christian, but she interviews people from all different faith traditions—poets, clergy, scientists, doctors, historians, activists, etc.—always opening with the question “What is your spiritual background?” The show’s tagline is “Pursuing deep thinking, social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together.” Again and again, On Being brightens my outlook, builds my compassion, and gives me hope and inspiration, and I’m so grateful to Tippett for creating that space.

In her interview at Biola, Tippett describes what it was like to discover theology as “one of humanity’s great disciplines,” as “carrying questions and virtues and substantive riches that should be able to find a way in public life true to their depth and their wisdom.” She discusses her desire to be true to the intellectual and spiritual content of faith—the latter almost absent in public talk; how she responds to the criticism of being “soft” on religious voices; and she gives tips for conversing with those you disagree with. When Anderson opened up the Biola project to critique by asking her the problems and possibilities with their approach to Christian liberal arts education, she had this beautiful response: “Whatever our particularity is, that is our gift to the world.” To immerse oneself fully in a particular religious tradition is not a narrowing but a deepening, she said; being deeply who you are and having convictions and seeking truth is not incompatible with living lovingly and peaceably in a pluralistic world!

Tippett is the author of Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How to Talk About It (Penguin, 2008) and Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin, 2016). Her radio show / podcast, On Being, has a vast archive, and I only just became a listener two years ago, but here are some episodes that I remember particularly enjoying:

Roundup: Imagination; inclusive dance; art theft; singing through divorce; and more

JOHN PIPER ON IMAGINATION: “Obey God with Your Creativity: The Christian Duty of Imagination”: Within evangelicalism (the tradition I belong to), the imagination is often deemed more of a liability than a virtue, something to be distrusted, at the very least, and at most, to be rejected as evil. So I was thrilled earlier this month to hear John Piper, one of America’s leading evangelicals, speak out in strong affirmation of imagination, which he calls “one of the great duties of the Christian mind.” It can be used destructively, he cautions, but it’s a God-given capacity that God wants us to exercise and strengthen, like a muscle, so that we can see more clearly what is and what could or what will be.

“The imagination,” Piper writes, “calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth—whether from the world or from the word of God. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.” To communicate breathtaking truth in a boring way is “probably a sin,” he says, for God is “infinitely worthy of ever-new verbal, musical, and visual expressions.”

“A college—or a church, or a family—which is committed to the supremacy of God in the life of the mind will cultivate many fertile, and a few great, imaginations. And oh, how the world needs God-besotted minds that can say the great things of God and sing the great things of God and play the great things of God in ways that have never been said or sung or played before.”

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Wheelchair dancing (Infinite Flow)

INCLUSIVE DANCE: Founded by Marisa Hamamoto in 2015, Infinite Flow is a professional dance company and nonprofit whose mission is “to use dance as a vehicle to create an inclusive world and eliminate the stigma and inequality associated with disability,” especially wheelchair use. Artistic excellence, social innovation, empowerment, community, and integration are among its values, which are played out through dance classes, workshops, and outreach events that incorporate people with and without disabilities. You can view snippets from classes and rehearsals as well as polished, artfully filmed choreographed routines on their Facebook page—like this most recent one, in which Hamamoto dances with Piotr Iwanicki, a multiple wheelchair World Latin Champion.

After twenty years of training in ballet and contemporary dance, Hamamoto suffered a spinal cord infarction, which left her temporarily paralyzed from the neck down. Upon recovery, she developed an interest in and pursued ballroom dancing, which led her to imagine what an inclusive form of the genre might look like. To learn more about Infinite Flow, see these two promo videos, and follow them on Facebook. You’ll also want to check out “Gravity.”

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PODCAST: Speaking with Joy: Lately I’ve been devouring this podcast by Joy Clarkson, a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland (she’s studying the role of the affections and the arts in moral formation). Though it was launched last November, I first discovered it in July at the tail-end of her summer book series on The Great Divorce, an allegorical tale by C. S. Lewis, in which she discusses themes such as desire, grace, the real, incurvatus in se (St. Augustine), self-choice, being seen and known, and need-love versus gift-love. I was hooked! Now I’m a Patreon supporter.

Speaking with Joy

Speaking with Joy is such a bright corner of the Internet, full of hope, wisdom, and delight. The standard episode format is an exploration of a given theme through three pieces of art: one literary, one visual, and one musical. I really enjoyed the last three I listened to: “The Army of Emotions,” featuring St. Macrina, Mister Rogers’s ditty “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?,” and the Irish animated film The Song of the Sea; “The Wisdom of Whimsy,” featuring Manalive by G. K. Chesterton, the illustrations of Beatrix Potter and Breezy Brookshire, and “On the Radio” by singer-songwriter Regina Spektor; and “Decent Men in Indecent Times,” which explores why and how we tell stories of the two world wars by looking at the contrasting poetry of Wilfred Owen and Laurence Binyon, the movie Dunkirk, and John Williams’s score for Schindler’s List.

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NEW IMAGE STAFF: Last week Image journal announced that James K. A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, will be taking the helm of Image as the journal’s new editor in chief. What a perfect choice! I’ve been hearing a lot of Smith since the publication of his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit in 2016 and have appreciated his recognition of the important role of artists. “If you want to change how the world thinks, you first have to change how they imagine,” he once said. “That’s why, today, artists are our apologists.” More recently, in a letter to the Image search committee, he wrote,

The arts speak to aspects of human nature ignored or denied by a culture captivated by brutal notions of “efficiency” or quasi-scientific narratives that reduce us to animality. It’s in literature, poetry, film, and so many other art forms that we hear echoes of a biblical understanding of humanity—that we are created in God’s image, animated by hungers and hopes, made to delight and play. In other words, the arts are evidence of what I’ve called “cracks in the secular”—the recalcitrant mystery at the heart of the human that refuses to be eviscerated. Art continues to shout Nein! to our disenchantment.

I’m looking forward to this next chapter of Image.

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ART HEIST: “Police back on the trail of ‘world’s most wanted’ stolen Caravaggio painting”: On October 15, nearly fifty years after Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily, experts met at the Vatican to discuss reinstating an active search. Speculation of mafia collusion and espionage have circulated around the case, which ranks second on the FBI’s list of top ten unsolved art crimes.

Nativity by Caravaggio
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, 1609. Oil on canvas. The angel’s banderole reads, “Gloria in eccelsis Deo.”

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NEW ALBUM: Yesterday Moda Spira (the stage name of Latifah Alattas) released Divorce, an intimate musical chronicle of the unexpected end of her marriage and the journey of grief she’s been on since. “I hope it helps those of you that might feel alienated or lost in the throes of divorce or disconnection from someone you love,” she says. In response to a request, Alattas released a series of podcast episodes that discuss each song on the album in depth; listen here. I first learned about the project back in July when Stephen Roach interviewed Alattas on the Makers & Mystics podcast—such a rich and memorable conversation that deepened my empathy for the loved ones of mine who have had to endure the pain of divorce.

Below is a video promo Alattas made for the album’s Kickstarter campaign. Click here to view the variety of streaming and purchase options.

Roundup: “Art as Mission,” Ken Myers on culture care, Quadri Plastici, heavy-metal hymn, cultural liturgies

— “Translate: Art as Mission” symposium, February 25, 9 a.m.–3:30 p.m.: This Saturday, Third Church of Richmond, Virginia, is bringing together twenty practitioners, advocates, and theorists of the arts as front-line missions (both local and abroad) for a series of presentations and discussions that is free and open to the public. “Our aim is to demonstrate that ‘art as mission’ is not about using people and objects merely as ‘tools’ for missions or proselytization, but is about recognizing that generative, creative practices can and should be intrinsically, inherently ‘missional’ because they put on display and draw people towards the rich, abundant life we were made to experience and have together as God’s children, renewed as the Body of Christ. Together we’ll explore how the arts are a distinctively integrative, incarnational way to be human, and to bear the image of our creator God.” Click on the link to see the schedule and to find out more about the speakers.

“Charged with the Grandeur of God: Faithful Imaginations in a Meaningful Creation” lecture, February 25, 7–9 p.m.: Also on Saturday, Ken Myers, founder and host of Mars Hill Audio and author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, will be speaking at Wallace Presbyterian Church in College Park, Maryland, on how alert imaginations enable us to receive the meaning in Creation and to rearticulate Creation’s meaning in works of art. A former arts and humanities editor for NPR, Myers writes of the mission of Mars Hill’s bimonthly “audio journal”: “We explore the various factors that have given modern Western culture its distinctive character. We also try to describe what cultural life — its practices, beliefs, and artifacts — might look like if it was the product of thoughtful Christian imaginations.” Each issue features guests from a variety of disciplines (poets, visual artists, scientists, philosophers, musicians and musicologists, social commentators, etc.); you can listen to back issues here, and read a 2013 profile on Myers from the Weekly Standard here. This event is sponsored by the Eliot Society, a new nonprofit in Washington, DC, that aims to “draw Christian faith and artistic culture back together, by promoting the thoughtful exploration of the work of creative men and women from both the past and the present.” Click here to RSVP.

— Last season’s Italia’s Got Talent featured a group called Quadri Plastici (“Living Paintings,” or “Tableaux”), which uses actors in period costumes and special lighting effects to recreate famous religious paintings in the flesh. According to the group’s website, the tradition of staging live reproductions of paintings originated in Avigliano in southern Italy in the 1920s: the participants, frozen in position, would be rolled into the town square on mule-drawn carts as part of the celebration of Saint Vitus’s feast day on June 15. In their television performance last year, Quadri Plastici recreated three Caravaggio paintings: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, The Calling of Saint Matthew, and The Death of the Virgin. Gabriele Finaldi, director of London’s National Gallery, was impressed, and he commissioned the group to perform two of the paintings from the museum’s “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition in October: The Taking of Christ and Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist. To better engage the public, these stagings took place outside in Trafalgar Square.

— Through Paul Neeley’s Global Christian Worship blog, I discovered a gem of a song: a heavy-metal arrangement of the nineteenth-century Swedish hymn “Bred dina vida vingar” (Thy Holy Wings) by the Finnish worship band Metallmässa (Metal Mass). Unlike its marginal status in most countries, heavy metal music is mainstream in Finland, which has the most heavy metal bands per capita in the world. “Metal masses”—church services performed in a heavy-metal style—became a trend in 2006; into this current stepped the group Metallmässa, whose lead singer, Christer Romberg, was a contestant on the 2007 Finnish Idols. Their headbanging rendition of “Bred dina vida vingar,” performed in the music video below, is from their 2012 EP Sanctus. The words are by Lina Sandell, “the Fanny Crosby of Sweden”; the tune—which I think is just beautiful (and quite catchy!)—is a traditional Swedish folk tune. Metallmässa is no longer active, but Romberg can be found performing a cappella with his four siblings as part of Vokalgruppen Romberg.

— Recently I enjoyed listening online to James K. A. Smith’s lecture “A Postmodern Saint? Augustine in France,” given at Wheaton College on August 31, 2016. Because I’m interested in how culture shapes our longings (in particular, visual culture), the bit that starts at 19:57 jumped out at me:

Augustine is a remarkable exegete of cultural liturgies that beset us—the rites and rituals of ambition, consumption, privilege, that aren’t just things that we do but do things to us. The frat house, the football stadium, the rituals of Wall Street finance—these are quasi-religious sites in late modern culture, not because they purvey a message but because they are incubators of love that are rife with rituals that train and direct our hearts and our desires. And conversion is no magical panacea for that; belief doesn’t inoculate our loves from their immersion in those cultural liturgies. So we need to constantly take stock of the formation of our loves and longings, all the subtle ways that secular liturgies bend our desires toward earth rather than heaven.

Consider, too, the act of looking as a cultural liturgy: at our phones and computer screens; at the staged displays in store windows, and the staged photos on social media; at the thirty-second commercial the network forces us to watch before we get back to our show, or the billboard we can’t help but notice when we’re stuck in traffic. Sometime around the year 600, Pope Gregory I insightfully wrote that pictures teach us what to adore, what to imitate. What pictures do you see throughout the day? Is Christ one of them?