Roundup: Acoustic ecology, trees in religion, the Pharaoh Sisters, and more

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 To Bend in Los Angeles); and two new folk music albums (Old Wow by Sam Lee and Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters).

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MUSIC VIDEO: “The Sound of Silence” (arr. Lawson, Trueman): Classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić collaborated with members of the string orchestra 12 Ensemble on this instrumental rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” [HT: Philip Chircop]

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.

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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.”

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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]

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EXHIBITIONS

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]

Faces in Prayer
Exhibition view of “Faces in Prayer: Photography by Katharina Heigl” (2019–20) at the Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna
Heigl, Katharina_Faces in Prayer
Photograph by Katharina Heigl, from the “Faces in Prayer” series

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.”

Shochat, Tal_Lessons in Time 3
Tal Shochat (Israeli, 1974–), Lessons in Time 3 (Yellow Apple Tree), 2016. C-prints, mounted and framed, 39 1/4 × 44 in. each. Photo courtesy of the artist and Meislin Projects.

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 Cross project; 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.

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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.

Another highlight: “Soul Cake,” a song I know from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s 1963 “A’ Soalin’.” It refers to a medieval Hallowmas tradition.

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.”

Fall of Man (Artful Devotion)

Gollon, Chris_Expulsion from Paradise
Chris Gollon (British, 1953–2017), Expulsion from Paradise, 2013. Acrylic on paper, 30 × 22 in. (76 × 56 cm).

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened . . .

—Genesis 3:6–7

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SONG: “The Fall” by Gungor, on Ghosts Upon the Earth (2011)

The fall, the fall, oh God, the fall of man
The fruit is found in every eye and every hand
Nothing, there is nothing yet, in truest form
We walk like ghosts upon the earth; the ground, it groans

How long, how long will you wait?
How long, how long till you save us all, save us all?

Turn your face to me, turn your face to me
Turn your face to me, turn your face to me

The light, the light, the morning light is gone
And all that’s left is fragile breath and failing lungs
The night, the night, the guiding night has come
Uniting lover with his bride, more precious than the dawn

How long, how long must we wait?

Turn your face to me, turn your face to me
Turn your face to me, turn your face to me

Because of the music behind “Turn your face to me”—soft and smooth, consonant, calm not frantic like the rest—I read this refrain as being spoken by God. The humans lament their fall, asking how long they must wait for salvation, and God gently responds: it’s available now, just turn your face to me.

The idea of “ghosts upon the earth” is inspired by C. S. Lewis’s allegorical novel The Great Divorce, in which a group of travelers from a “grey town” are taken by bus to heaven, a land that proves to be far more solid, more real, than even the travelers’ own bodies. “Sometimes it seems like the most real thing is what we can see and experience with our senses around us—this life, the tangible,” Michael Gungor said. “Ideas like love, like God, these things sometimes feel more disconnected and ethereal, like that’s the ghostly realm. But what if that’s wrong and God and love is actually what is most real, and we are more like ghosts walking upon the earth, hoping to become more real?”

To watch a live performance of Gungor’s “The Fall” from 2012, click here.


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 First Sunday of Lent, cycle A, click here.

Come, Weak and Wounded (Artful Devotion)

Kershisnik, Brian_Wounded Saint
Brian Kershisnik (American, 1962–), Wounded Saint, 2002. Oil on panel, 40 × 30 in.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near . . .

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

—Joel 2:1, 12–13

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

—Psalm 51:8

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

—Psalm 51:17

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SONG: “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” | Words by Joseph Hart, 1759, with anonymous refrain, ca. 1811 | Music: American folk melody (RESTORATION), published in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, 1835 | Performed by Keith and Kristyn Getty, on The Greengrass Session: Six Hymns from the Old World and the New, 2014

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

The singing-songwriting duo Keith and Kristyn Getty [previously], who are married, are from Northern Ireland and split their time between there and Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States. In 2014 they recorded a medley of the (American) shape-note hymn “Come, Ye Sinners” with a traditional Irish reel tune known as MUSICAL PRIEST, blending the musics of their two homes. The song starts out at a slow, weary pace with spare violin accompaniment and then picks up with a brisk guitar and other strings, including a free-ranging fiddle. The dirge gives way to celebration—this is the movement of Lent.

“Come, Ye Sinners” appears in hymnals with slight variations in verses, sometimes with an additional two, but the text above is one of the most commonly used. The anonymous refrain (“I will arise . . .”), which makes an oblique reference to the parable of the prodigal son, was added to Hart’s text sometime in the nineteenth century; it is a “floating lyric” found in Southern hymnals as early as 1811.

Though I most associate the hymn with the tune RESTORATION (sometimes called ARISE), it has been set to several tunes over the years, both traditional and contemporary. These include BEACH SPRING, GREENVILLE (which uses a different refrain), and ones by Todd Agnew and Matthew S. Smith, to name a few.

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In his painting Wounded Saint, Brian Kershisnik [previously] shows us a young woman with downcast eyes and a bleeding gash in her right arm. This wound, a metaphor for the pain she carries inside, could be self-inflicted or inflicted by others or both, but either way, her child gently leads her forward toward healing, as two angels support her from behind. “Poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore,” the woman returns to her God, whose light emanates faintly from her head. In his arms, as the hymn says, “there are ten thousand charms”—ten thousand graces, ten thousand traits that fascinate, allure, delight . . . and make whole.

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I’ve just published a piece on the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) blog to mark Ash Wednesday tomorrow. It’s a short reflection on the interactive installation hash2ash by the Warsaw-based art collective panGenerator, which uses digital technology to turn selfies into a pile of ash. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” as the liturgy goes. Visit https://civa.org/civablog/remember-you-are-dust/ to read more.


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 Ash Wednesday, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Lent devotionals, Joseph Shabalala, dancing with dust, kids’ songs and doodles

Lent begins next week, and as usual, I’ll be sharing visual art, music, poetry, and other media throughout the season that I hope will be a quiet support to your spiritual walk. If you are giving up social media for Lent but want to be kept aware of new Art & Theology posts, sign up to receive the posts by email by clicking the “Subscribe” button—on the right sidebar if you’re on a desktop, or at the bottom of this post if you’re on your phone. (Note that the sidebar/footer is not visible from the homepage; you have to click through into a post to see it.)

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Lent devotionals 2020

NEW LENT DEVOTIONALS: I’ve become aware of two new poetry devotionals for Lent published this year.

My Sour-Sweet Days: George Herbert and the Journey of the Soul by Mark Oakley: “George Herbert is one of the great 17th century poet-priests. His poems embrace every shade of the spiritual life, from love and closeness, to anger and despair, to reconciliation and hope. And his work is always rich with audacious playfulness: he seems to take God on, knowing God will win, as if he’s having an argument with a faithful friend he knows is not going to leave. In much of theology and spirituality, God is a critical spectator to human lives, but for Herbert, his sense of relationship with God is primarily of a friendship that can never be broken. These are some of the themes Mark Oakley explores in this book. He offers a poem for every day in Lent, with a two-page commentary on each of the forty included.”

Wendell Berry and the Sabbath Poetry of Lent by SALT Project: “In this Lenten devotional, biblical texts and simple, accessible practices walk hand-in-hand with Wendell Berry’s poetic vision of sabbath and the natural world. All you’ll need is your favorite Bible and Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. Week by week, we’ll walk through the woods together toward Easter morning, keeping sabbath as we go—with Wendell Berry as our guide.” Sold as a professionally designed, downloadable PDF with printing and folding instructions.
   I really enjoyed SALT Project’s Lent devotional from last year, built around the poetry of Mary Oliver, so I bought this new one and gave it a breeze-through so I could recommend it here prior to Lent; I look forward to spending more time with it throughout the season. Devotions are provided for Ash Wednesday; the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent; Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Each one includes an instruction to read a Bible passage and a Wendell Berry poem, a short meditation that draws the two together, an additional reading of two more related Berry poems, a candle lighting and one-sentence prayer (on the themes of silence, trust, delight, care, insight, resurrection, joy, love, sorrow), a few recommended practices for the week, and personal questions to ponder and discuss with a friend, if desired.
   I especially appreciate the “Practices” section, which includes ideas like: make a list of your favorite little delights (“the sunlight’s slant in the late afternoon, your dog’s ears, the steam rising from your coffee—no delight is too slight!”) and read it aloud with family or friends over a meal; take a neighborhood walk and count how many shades of green you see; ignore a household chore for an entire day each week.

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DANCE VIDEO: “Seas of Crimson”: In this music video for one of the pieces on Bethel Music’s album Without Words: Synesthesia, Jessica Lind of the Oregon Ballet Theatre dances with dust that by the composition’s end turns to vibrant color. A metaphor for the Lenten journey, perhaps? [HT: A Sacramental Life]

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OBITUARY: Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo Founder, Dies at 78: From the New York Times obituary by Jon Pareles:

Joseph Shabalala, the gentle-voiced South African songwriter whose choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought Zulu music to listeners worldwide, died on [February 11] in a hospital in Pretoria. He was 78. . . . Mr. Shabalala began leading choral groups at the end of the 1950s. By the early ’70s his Ladysmith Black Mambazo — in Zulu, “the black ax of Ladysmith,” a town in KwaZulu-Natal Province — had become one of South Africa’s most popular groups, singing about love, Zulu folklore, rural childhood memories, moral admonitions and Christian faith. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s collaborations with Paul Simon on his 1986 album “Graceland,” on the tracks “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” introduced South African choral music to an international pop audience.

Joseph Shabalala

Shabalala was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church of God of Prophecy, having become a Christian in 1976. He said he hopes his music shows people “how to be good to God, how to praise God, how to respect, how to forgive each other . . .”

Below is a video of Shabalala with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing one of his songs, “King of Kings,” live in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2000. Written during apartheid, it is a prayer for peace in South Africa and the rest of the world. It was first released on the 1987 album Shaka Zulu. [Listen on Spotify]

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KIDS’ SONGS: I’m not a mom, but I often enjoy listening to “children’s music,” as there’s so much of quality out there these days. Here are two songs released this year in that too-restrictively-titled genre (because hey, there’s much for grown-ups to love here too!), along with animated music videos.

“Glad You’re Here” by Justin Roberts: This new single by “the Judy Blume of kiddie rock” (New York Times) is for a new- or soon-to-be-born baby. So fun, warm, and adorable! (Note: The video was produced by the same company that brought you the Wendell Berry devotional mentioned above.)

“Dinosaurs in Love” by Fenn Rosenthal, feat. Tom Rosenthal: This sad-sweet song about two dinosaurs eating cucumbers and having parties and then, well, you’ll have to listen . . . was written by three-year-old Fenn Rosenthal from London (with some help on the tune from her dad, Tom). At the end of January Tom Rosenthal, who is himself a singer-songwriter, posted a recording of Fenn singing this one-minute creation of hers on Twitter, and it went viral. Now the song is streaming on Spotify and is up on iTunes, Amazon, and other e-tailer websites, with all proceeds benefitting wildlife charities. It was also picked up by directorial team Hannah Jacobs, Katy Wang, and Anna Ginsburg, who created a music video using 2D frame-by-frame animation. [HT: Colossal]

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DRAWING CONTEST: “Doodle for Google,” for K–12 artists: Google Doodles are those special drawings, sometimes animated, that embellish Google’s logo on the website’s homepage from time to time. For the twelfth consecutive year, that highly visible space is up for grabs to one young artist in the US through the tech company’s “Doodle for Google” competition, open to ages K–12. This year the theme is “How do you show kindness?” In addition to having their work featured on Google’s landing page for an entire day, the winner will receive a $30,000 college scholarship, and the winner’s school will be awarded a $50,000 technology package. The deadline for submissions is March 13, 2020, at 11 p.m. ET. [HT: Hyperallergic]

Book Review: A Lent Sourcebook

Published in 1990 by Liturgy Training Publications, A Lent Sourcebook: The Forty Days is an anthology of hymns, poems, prayers, homilies, and reflections gathered from ancient and modern sources on a variety of Lenten themes, interspersed with scripture passages. The thousand-plus entries were compiled and edited by J. Robert Baker, Evelyn Kaehler, and Peter Mazar, with additional compilation help from James P. Barron, OP; Thomas Cademartrie; Elizabeth Hoffman; Gabe Huck; Mary McGann, RSCJ; G. Michael Thompson; and Elizabeth-Anne Vanek. The introduction is by Peter Mazar.

A Lent Sourcebook

I really love the scope of the selections, which come from church fathers, mystics, novelists, poets, songwriters, activists, theologians, saints and martyrs, the Roman Missal and the Byzantine Rite. There’s Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Elie Wiesel, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ambrose, Bonaventure, Dante, Negro spirituals and Shaker hymns and medieval carols, Jewish and Celtic blessings, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Dag Hammarskjöld, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Sayers, Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Robert Farrar Capon, Walter Brueggemann, and many more.

These are some of the better-known names, but there are also names and texts that were new to me, some coming from obscure, out-of-print books or journal articles, and some of the selections that originated in Greek or Polish being translated afresh for this volume. There are a few African and Latin American voices represented, but most voices come from the West—a limitation that is understandable. Several compilation-style Lent devotionals I’ve used in the past feature only British and American writers, and this goes far beyond that, I’m glad to say. Just be aware that because A Lent Sourcebook is now three decades old, it doesn’t include any of the significant Christian voices that have emerged in more recent years.

Also be aware that this book was published by a Catholic institution, and the make-up of the compilation team was (from what I can tell) entirely Catholic, so that theology and tradition is heavily reflected. As a Protestant, that was not a barrier at all to me enjoying the book. There were a few selections that I take issue with on theological or practical grounds—but I never expect to agree with or to gravitate toward everything I read in an anthology! I appreciated learning more about the Catholic liturgies that surround Lent and some of the sources that inform or respond to them, as well as historical practices that developed in different locales. Eastern Orthodox liturgies are also featured, as are Protestant writings (including, in abundance, hymns!). There were several pleasant surprises for me.

I’ve read a handful of volumes from LTP’s Sourcebook series (which includes other liturgical seasons as well as topics like Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage, and so on), and they’re all great.

Because of the way I’m constituted, I tend to get more out of devotionals that integrate the arts rather than those that start off with a scripture passage followed by a lengthy prose reflection ending with a moral lesson or present-day application. I do appreciate discursive prose very much, but I like how this anthology also incorporates poetry, song, and fiction to stoke the imagination and showcase the beauty and multifacetedness of the gospel. Repentance, renewal, feasting and fasting, temptation, purity, divine love and mercy, prayer, silence, and eternity are among the themes addressed, and the biblical texts span from the Genesis narratives to the Pauline epistles.

A Lent Sourcebook is available in two different formats: a single, 462-page, perfect-bound volume (ISBN 9780929650364), which appears to be the only option available on the publisher’s website, or two spiral-bound volumes (9780929650203, 9780929650357), which is what came to me through my local library’s interlibrary loan system. The entries are organized by week (Week of Ash Wednesday, First Week of Lent, . . . Sixth Week of Lent), and those “chapters” are broken down further by day (First Sunday of Lent, etc.), extending from Carnival to Holy Thursday. Basic attributions are given in the margins of each page, with fuller citations available in the back of the book. Also, each page spread contains a simple square (woodcut? linocut?) illustration, printed in magenta, by Suzanne M. Novak.

A Lent Sourcebook sample spread

A Lent Sourcebook sample spread

Below is a sampling of passages I encountered here for the first time.

PURCHASE A LENT SOURCEBOOK:

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An effigy of the Carnival is, in a great many places, “condemned to death” and executed (the method of execution varies—sometimes it is burnt, sometimes drowned, sometimes beheaded). The “putting to death of Carnival” is often accompanied by general tussles; nuts are thrown at the grotesque creature itself, or everyone pelts everyone else with flowers or vegetables. In other places (around Tübingen, for instance) the figure of the Carnival is condemned, decapitated and buried in a coffin in the cemetery after a mock ceremony. This is called “Carnival’s funeral.”

The other episode which is of the same sort is the driving out or killing of “Death” in various forms. The most widespread custom in Europe is this: Children make a guy from straw and branches and carry it out of the village saying: “We are carrying Death to the water,” or something of the sort; they then throw it into a lake or well, or else burn it. In Austria, all the audience fight round Death’s funeral pyre to get hold of a bit of the effigy. There we see the fertilizing power of Death—a power attaching to all the symbols of vegetation, and to the ashes of the wood burnt during all the various festivals of the regeneration of nature and the beginning of the New Year. As soon as Death has been driven out or killed, Spring is brought in.

—Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1963)

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Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed and not a “mystery” to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a “status,” a rationale, make it “normal.” Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible.

—Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (1973)

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I was entrusted with a sinless and living land,
but I sowed the ground with sin
and reaped with a sickle the ears of laziness;
in thick sheaves I garnered my actions,
but winnowed them not on the threshing-floor of repentance.
I beg of you, my God, the eternal farmer,
with the wind of your loving-kindness
winnow the chaff of my works,
and grant to my soul the harvest of forgiveness;
shut me in your heavenly storehouse, and save me!

—Byzantine Vespers, from The Lenten Triodion, translated by G. Michael Thompson

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Alas, dear Christ, the snake is here again.
Alas, it is here: terror has seized me, and fear.
Alas that I ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Alas that its envy led me to envy too.
I did not become like God; I was cast out of paradise.
Temper, sword, awhile, the heat of your flames
and let me go again about the garden,
entering with Christ, a thief from another tree.

—Gregory of Nazianzus, from Poemata Dogmatica (382 AD), translated from the Latin by Walter Mitchell and published in Early Christian Prayers, ed. Adalbert Hammon, OFM (1961)

(In this prayer the speaker likens himself to the thief who was executed on a “tree” beside Jesus on Calvary. I am “a thief from another tree,” Gregory confesses, having given in to temptation and stolen the fruit that was not mine. He apostrophizes the cherubim’s flaming sword that bars entry to Eden, begging it to cool down so that he might, by the merits of Christ, pass [back] into paradise, as did that penitent thief on Good Friday.)

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Even after several years with the reformed liturgy, it still comes as something of a shock to hear Lent described in the first Lenten preface as “this joyful season.” For those of us conditioned to imagine Lent as a grim, unpleasant time, the temptation will be either to shrug it off as poetic license or to associate it with a mother’s attempt to persuade a child to take its medicine.

But there is always C. S. Lewis. In his account of his youth and his journey of faith, Surprised by Joy (1955), Lewis gives us an inveigling definition of joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.” Here, perhaps, is something we can latch onto as we confront the notion of Lent as a “joyful season.”

Lent, in this perspective, is a time for eschewing pleasure in order to be surprised by joy, that unsatisfied desire more desirable than any satisfaction. Conversely, it is a time for recognizing the habit we have of seeking satisfactions that dull the deepest longing of the heart; the habit of having to have and not wanting to want. “The very notion of joy,” writes C. S. Lewis, “makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There to have is to want and to want is to have.” Lent would then be a time for discovering what it is we really want, the heart’s desire, the restlessness which for Augustine is a symptom of our being made for something we can never possess. Paradoxically, knowing that longing brings joy.

—Mark Searle, “The Spirit of Lent,” in Assembly 8, no. 3 (1981), published by the University of Notre Dame Press

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Each day may I remember the sources of the mercies thou hast bestowed on me gently and generously;
Each day may I be fuller in love to thyself.

Each thing I have received, from thee it came,
Each thing for which I hope, from thy love it will come,
Each thing I enjoy, it is of thy bounty,
Each thing I ask comes of thy disposing.

Holy God, loving Father, of the word everlasting,
Grant me to have of thee this living prayer:
Lighten my understanding, kindle my will, begin my doing,
Incite my love, strengthen my weakness, enfold my desire.

[. . .]

And grant thou to me, Father beloved,
From whom each thing that is freely flows,
That no tie over-strict, no tie over-dear
May be between myself and this world below.

—Celtic prayer compiled in the Carmina Gadelica, vol. 3, pp. 59–61, translated from the Gaelic by James Carmichael Watson (1940)

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“O Healing River” | Words by Fran Minkoff and music by Fred Hellerman, 1964

O healing river, send down your waters,
Send down your waters upon this land.
O healing river, send down your waters,
And wash the blood from off the sand.

This land is parching; this land is burning;
No seed is growing in the barren ground.
O healing river, send down your waters;
O healing river, send your waters down.

Let the seed of freedom awake and flourish;
Let the deep roots nourish; let the tall stalks rise.
O healing river, send down your waters,
O healing river, from out of the skies.

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“The Cast” by Sharon Olds (1985)

When the doctor cut off my son’s cast the
high scream of the saw filled the room
and the boy’s lap was covered with fluff like the
chaff of a new thing emerging, the
down in the hen-yard. . . . [Read the rest at poetryfoundation.org]

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Enter into the mystery of silence.

Your goal in life is not to hold your tongue but to love, to know yourself and to receive your God. You need to learn how to listen, how to retreat into the depths, how to rise above yourself.

Silence leads you to all this, so seek it lovingly and vigilantly. But beware of false silence: Yours should be neither taciturnity nor glumness, nor should it be systematic or inflexible, or torpid. Authentic silence is the gateway to peace, adoration and love.

Live your silence, don’t merely endure it.

—Pierre-Marie Delfieux, from the preface to A City Not Forsaken: Jerusalem Community Rule of Life (1985)

 

Roundup: Hymns for Lent; the insistence of spring; female Christian poets; prison art; summer courses

HYMNS FOR LENT: A list of fifty-plus hymns for Lent, including free sheet music downloads, compiled by Dean B. McIntyre, director of music resources at the Center for Worship Resourcing at the United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries in Nashville. Most of these hymns—either their tune, their words, or both—are contemporary, and I believe they were all either written or arranged by members of the UMC. I love that so many of them are minor-key! (There’s such a dearth of minor-key hymns in my evangelical tradition.) “The Desolate Messiah Dies” is a real standout for me—WOW. Here are the others that I really like. The first three would work particularly well for a Good Friday service:

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SONG: “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” by Tom Waits, covered by Lowana Wallace: I’ve had this song on repeat for the past several weeks—Lowana Wallace’s rendition is simply gorgeous. “This cover is a tribute to Canadians in March. Winter will end, you guys,” Wallace writes. “And maybe Tom didn’t mean for this song to point Christians to the beauty of Lent leading to Easter, but it did for me.”

Lowana Wallace is a singer-songwriter from Caronport, Saskatchewan. If you’ve listened to the Porter’s Gate Worship Project’s acclaimed album Work Songs, you will have encountered her work: she cowrote the song “Day by Day.” Check out more of her music videos, a mix of covers and originals, on her YouTube channel—they’re all great! To help her make more of these, consider becoming a Patreon supporter. You can also download four of the nine tracks from her Christmas jazz album, Hymns and Carols (2009), on NoiseTrade.

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POETRY: “5 Female Poets of Faith”: March is Women’s History Month, and Jody Lee Collins has compiled a list of five women poets you should know, whose Christian faith infuses their work: Abigail Carroll, Barbara Crooker, Jeanne Murray Walker, Laurie Klein, and Marjorie Maddox. I heartily second these recommendations! For each poet, Collins has selected a representative poem, giving you a taste of their style, and has provided links to the poets’ published volumes.

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2 FILMS + ART EXHIBITION: Incarceration is the theme of two HBO movies that premiered on television last month (following a positive reception at 2018’s Tribeca Film Festival) and the tie-in pop-up art exhibition, sponsored by HBO, that ran from February 20 to 25 at Studio 525 in Chelsea, Manhattan.

Written by Stephen Belber and directed by Madeleine Sackler, O.G. is an introspective drama that follows Louis (Jeffrey Wright), who, after spending twenty-four years in prison for murder, is about to be released. Groundbreakingly, it was filmed almost entirely inside an active prison—Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana—with a cast made up largely of inmates and correctional officers, who also consulted on the script. Read an interview with Wright, a professional actor best known for Westworld, and one with supporting actor Theothus Carter, who is serving a sixty-five-year sentence at Pendleton. When he was offered the role of Beecher, Carter said, “I was so happy, it was like being jolted alive back from the dead. I know I’ve never been dead before, but being dead has to feel like being in prison, because here it feels like you don’t matter anymore. This made me feel like I mattered again.”

It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It is a companion film to O.G. that is directed by Madeleine Sackler and thirteen incarcerated men at Pendleton, who reflect on their lives and the consequences of their crimes in front of and behind the camera. When Sackler received permission from the prison to lead a filmmaking workshop for inmates, she hadn’t intended to make a documentary, but she was so moved by the depth and intimacy of the conversations that were arising in that workshop, as participants shared their personal stories, and they all decided these stories and perspectives needed to be captured on film, crafted together, and shared more widely. An animator was brought on to bring the men’s memories to life.

Coinciding with the HBO premiere of these two films was a six-day exhibition in New York City called The OG Experience, curated by Jesse Krimes and Daveen Trentman. Like the Hard Truth film, this exhibition offered an insider narrative about the US prison system, as the art was all by formerly incarcerated individuals. The pieces on display included an installation of reclaimed cafeteria trays, a re-creation of a prison cell that invited viewers to sketch on the wall with a screwdriver, a video of the artist boxing with a projection of himself, a self-portrait in pastels over legal documents, and a mural of newsprint images transferred onto prison-issued bedsheets using hair gel (a method developed, and a work begun, by Krimes while in solitary confinement).

On seeing his work on display, Krimes said, “It was really emotional because so much of that experience and what our prison system is designed to do is pretty much destroy you. It’s designed to take away your identity, it’s designed to take away your humanity, and I think in creating that work and investing myself in something meaningful, and coming home and getting to see the final thing . . . it was something that made me feel like I came out of this situation intact, like I’m still a whole human being, and that this thing did not destroy me and it did not take away who I am at my core or change me in a way that it was designed to do.” Since his release from prison, Krimes cofounded the Right of Return Fellowship to directly support formerly incarcerated artists.

I particularly like the works by Russell Craig (also), a self-taught artist from Philadelphia. In his seven-piece set of unstretched canvases, E-Val, pairs of eyes peer out hauntingly from within Rorschach blots made of ox blood; “Craig, who was given Rorschach tests as part of his psychological evaluations during his time in the foster care system, wanted to represent the trauma felt in black communities,” the exhibition text says. Another work, a self-portrait he drew over his prison documents, “symbolizes the stigma of being a criminal,” Craig explained. “No matter how much you change your life around, you’re still viewed as a criminal.”

E-Val by Russell Craig
Russell Craig (American), E-Val, 2017. Blood stains, canvas, acrylic, dimensions vary. Photo: Kisha Bari, courtesy Jesse Krimes.
Self-Portrait by Russell Craig
Russell Craig (American), Self-Portrait, 2016. Pastel over legal documents, 96 × 96 in. Photo: Jasmine Weber/Hyperallergic.

For more photos from the exhibition, see the Hyperalleric review, “Formerly Incarcerated Artists Visualize Healing.”

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SUMMER COURSES: Regent College, a graduate school of Christian studies in Vancouver, is offering six arts courses this summer—week-long intensives. The topics are prehistoric art and meaning making; George Herbert; John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; grace and forgiveness in contemporary theater (with key scenes played out in class by guest actors from Pacific Theatre); love and longing in poetry and theology, taught by Malcolm Guite (the reading list includes Dante, Herbert, Tennyson, Eliot, Augustine, Aquinas, and Lewis); and “Moral Imagination: Peacebuilding Using the Arts.” There are no prerequisites, and you don’t even have to be enrolled as a seminary student to participate. The cost to audit is CAD$350 (about US$261), with for-credit options costing more. For more information or to register, visit the links.

Treasure (Artful Devotion)

Crates by Pinturicchio
Crates of Thebes dumps out his wealth into the sea in this detail of the “Mount of Wisdom” marble mosaic inlay and graffito, designed by Pinturicchio in 1505, from the floor of Siena Cathedral in Italy.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

—Matthew 6:19–21

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Matthew 6:21 as “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

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SONG: “House of Gold” by Hank Williams, 1948 | Performed by the Secret Sisters, 2010

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In her poem “Storage,” Mary Oliver describes the total emptying of a storage unit she rented for years:

I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.

Lent, which begins Wednesday, is a season for throwing out that which has been weighing us down—whether that be physical possessions, or things of the heart (such as unhealthy attitudes, habits, or dependencies; in a word, sins). It’s a spring cleaning of sorts, where we clear out those accumulations that have subtly edged out God. “Make a beautiful fire!” Oliver exclaims. A bonfire of vanities. Once you relinquish your burdens to the fire, you will be light as a bird, and free to fly.

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Giorgio Vasari described the floor of Siena Cathedral as “the most beautiful . . . , largest and most magnificent . . . ever made.” Read an excellent, beautifully photographed introduction to this allegorical masterwork, unique in terms of its technique and message, at https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/sites/floor/.

Siena Cathedral
View down the nave of Siena Cathedral

Is it a contradiction for the church to have poured much of its wealth into the making of this magnificent floor whose imagery, in part, categorizes earthly wealth as a potential pitfall on the path to Wisdom? No, I don’t think so. Its beauty glorifies Christ, proclaiming him the ultimate Treasure. This is not wealth hoarded away for personal security but wealth poured out before God, for the soul-nourishment of others. The spending of large sums of money on art when poverty persists is and will always remain a tricky conundrum (not least during Lent, when an ethic of simplicity and almsgiving are emphasized), but artist Makoto Fujimura navigates it quite well in his 1996 essay “The Extravagance of God.”


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 Ash Wednesday, cycle C, click here.

The savasana of Lent

I just finished proofreading a book on yoga, and one of its chapters in particular is going to stick with me through Lent: “Practice Dying.” In it the author, Michael Stone, discusses the significance of savasana (pronounced sha-VA-sa-na), literally “corpse pose,” which involves lying face-up on the ground, arms at your side, palms up, in a state of attentive relaxation. It is the final pose of every yoga session—and it’s the practice of death, of letting go.

In corpse pose, the practitioner embraces the impermanence of life and, by doing so, is empowered to live with greater gratitude for what is, right now, and with a continual attitude of surrender. Facing one’s mortality is seen as freeing rather than fearsome.

Savasana is a restorative pose, meant to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. It’s widely considered the most important pose in yoga and also the most difficult. It’s deceptively hard to slow down and be still! And still more, to let the unwanted elements within us die.

Preparing for Flight by Michelle Kingdom
Michelle Kingdom (American, 1967–), Preparing for Flight, 2016. Embroidery.

This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world will enter a savasana of sorts as they receive an ashen cross on their foreheads, along with the pronouncement that they are dust and will return to dust. Christians, like Buddhists, concede a great impermanence and teach nonattachment to the things of this life, but unlike Buddhists, we are theists who believe that there is One who is permanent, the only ground, the only stability, and that we are to attach ourselves to him at all costs.

In many ways, to observe Lent is to practice dying. We die to self—so that we can rise to new life in Christ. This act involves purging our hearts and lives of those things that only cause clutter, and relaxing into that empty space with God. In asana practice, it is, ironically, savasana, corpse pose, that wakes you up, that rebirths you into the rest of your day, the rest of your life. So, too, is Lent a putting-to-death posture that leads to resurrection.

Some people tend to associate Lent with extra exertion—and it’s true, there are disciplines associated with it (fasting, prayer, almsgiving). But what if Lent were reconceived as a time of “attentive relaxation”? Of meeting with the Breath (the Spirit) in stillness, listening and leaning into his promptings? Indeed, fasting and prayer are intended to open up that meeting space, and giving money and food to the poor is no burden to those who have relinquished their grasp on material possessions.

Like savasana, the “corpse pose” of Lent is both simple and difficult. Lying down and letting go. It can be painful to put to death those habits and things that have been keeping us from God, as can the sacrifice required to reach out to others in their need. But the life that awaits us when we die to self makes the choice obvious, and God’s very Spirit is active on our behalf.

Michelle Kingdom’s embroidery Preparing for Flight visualizes, for me, this idea of Lent as savasana. (That is, my theistic reinterpretation of it.) As the figure relaxes into the Ground of Being, she is made ready to soar.

Lent is about renewal, a coming to life that can happen only when we lie down and die (see, e.g., Jesus’s parable of the grain of wheat). In the stillness, in the dust, in the cessation of striving, is where God meets us and raises us up, as Rami M. Shapiro suggests in his poem “Renewal”:

Imagine not that life is all doing.
Stillness, too, is life;
And in that stillness
The mind cluttered with busyness quiets,
The heart reaching to win rests,
And we hear the whispered truths of God.

May your Lent be a time of blessed stillness that restores you to the abundant life of God.

The soundtrack for this post, embedded above, is “Death” by the Coptic Australian oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros, inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s poem of the same name. “. . . [L]ike seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. / Trust the dreams . . .”

Roundup: Culture care, top 10 movies of 2018, new Lent songs, and more

MORE ARTS CONFERENCES: I added two more April conferences to my recent post on spring arts events: “Sacrament & Story: Recasting Worship Through the Arts” in the Pacific Northwest and “Majesty: An Art & Faith Incubator” in Nelson, New Zealand. Check them out! https://artandtheology.org/2019/01/17/upcoming-conferences-and-symposia/

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ESSAY: “Makoto Fujimura and the Culture Care Movement” by Victoria Emily Jones (that’s me): Japanese American artist, author, and lecturer Makoto Fujimura has been at the forefront of the “culture care” movement for the past decade, whose aim is to love and to nourish culture rather than to war against it. This essay is an introduction to Mako’s teachings on the subject, as well as to a few of his major painting projects. He’s such a refreshing voice for evangelicalism, witnessing to the goodness of God’s creation and cogently articulating the Christian calling to be stewards of that goodness. YouTube and Vimeo are chock-full of Mako interviews, lectures, panel discussions, and short films. Here’s just one, to give you a taste of the work he’s doing—in it he describes some of the themes in his book Silence and Beauty, including the experience of personal “ground zeroes.”

I saw some of Mako’s paintings in person last year at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. It was a quiet day in the gallery, so I had the privilege of being alone with them—those finely pulverized precious minerals and flecks of gold dancing abstractly across the canvases. Photographs really cannot do the works justice, but regardless, here’s a detail shot I took of In the Beginning, which Mako painted as a frontispiece to the Gospel of John for the Four Holy Gospels project commissioned by Crossway.

In the Beginning (detail) by Makoto Fujimura
Makoto Fujimura (American, 1960–), In the Beginning (detail), 2011. Mineral pigments and gold on Belgium linen, 60 × 48 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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TOP TEN MOVIES: “Favorite Films of 2018: The Top Ten” by Jeffrey Overstreet: The Oscars are tonight, and lots of writers have already published their “top 10” lists in anticipation. One film critic, a Christian, whom I really respect is Jeffrey Overstreet [previously]—I love the way he talks about film. He started writing movie reviews in the nineties after realizing how most reviews by Christians were simply long lists of ways in which the movie might offend us. He wanted to go deeper.

“When we focus on the dangers of moviegoing, it can distract us from the purpose and the strengths of storytelling, and from the fact that we are encountering someone else’s perspective on the world,” he said in a 2007 interview. “If we treated people the way we treated movies in the past, we would shy away from them because of some particular aspect of their lifestyle or personality. I think engagement is a much healthier approach. We should avoid imitating bad behavior, but we should be open to engaging with, listening to, and understanding our neighbors through their art.”

I’ve seen only three of his top ten recommendations for 2018 but am adding a few of the others to my watchlist. His number ten, Private Life, was a favorite of mine too, certainly one of the most memorable, most wrenching movies I watched all year. It’s on Netflix.

For another “top 10” list, see the one compiled by the Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury, a body of film critics and cinephiles seeking “to enlarge or expand the perception of what is meant by either labelling a film a ‘Christian’ film or suggesting that it should be of interest to Christian audiences.”

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NEW BOOK: Were You There? Lenten Reflections on the Spirituals by Luke A. Powery: “Valuable not only for their sublime musical expression, the African American spirituals provide profound insights into the human condition and Christian life. Many spirituals focus on the climax of the Christian drama, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the ways in which those events bring about the liberation of God’s people. In these devotions for the season of Lent, Luke A. Powery leads the reader through the spirituals as they confront the mystery of Christ’s atoning death and victory over the grave. Each selection includes the lyrics of the spiritual, a reflection by the author on the spiritual’s meaning, a Scripture verse related to that meaning, and a brief prayer.”

Published last month, this book is a follow-up to Powery’s popular Rise Up, Shepherd! Advent Reflections on the Spirituals (2017). I’m a big proponent of liturgically themed devotionals that utilize the arts as a resource (for others for Lent, see last year’s roundup), so this title stood out to me when I saw it in a magazine ad. Using Spotify or some other music-streaming service as a companion while going through the book is, I’d imagine, a must, as the power of the spirituals lies largely in their expressive vocal deliveries.

Were You There? by Luke A. Powery

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NEW ALBUM: Lent by Liturgical Folk (previously here and here): Liturgical Folk’s fourth album is now out! Featuring the vocals of Lauren Plank Goans (of Lowland Hum), Liz Vice, Josh Garrels, and Ryan Flanigan, Lent comprises ten original songs that extend from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday and that are inspired by the Book of Common Prayer. As always, the songs are lyrically rich and musically interesting, and I appreciate the inclusion of guest vocalists this time around, as each voice brings a unique quality. You can purchase the album on Bandcamp; devotional e-book and lead sheets are sold separately. You’ll also want to check out the group’s upcoming tour dates in the western US.

On Wednesday I posted a song about delighting in the Lord by Luke Morton; here’s one on the same theme, but with a decidedly Lenten tone, conceding human weakness:

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NEW MEDLEY: “Smile / I Smile” by Sara Niemietz and W. G. Snuffy Walden: This medley combines new arrangements of Charlie Chaplin’s melancholic pop standard “Smile” with the upbeat modern gospel song “I Smile” by Kirk Franklin. The former is an absolutely beautiful melody, which Chaplin composed for the final sequence of his 1936 semi-talkie Modern Times (one of my favorite films ever). The two main characters—the “tramp” (Chaplin) and the “gamin” (Paulette Goddard), a homeless couple—walk down a dusty road together into a sunrise. The whole movie they’ve been scraping and scrounging to get by, having endured unemployment, hunger, a mental breakdown, prison, family separation, and police harassment. Goddard’s character is ready to throw in the towel, but Chaplin encourages her to keep on going, that they’ll make it through.

In 1954 John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics to Chaplin’s melody based on lines and themes from the film, creating the song that we all know today. While I could quibble with the admonishment to “hide every trace of sadness” and the like, as if we must push down the very real pain that we feel, I recognize that ultimately, the song is about hope, about pushing through darkness into the light.

By pairing this song with Franklin’s “I Smile” (2011), Niemietz locates that hope in God, who showers us with “Holy Ghost power.” The speaker acknowledges that “it’s so hard to look up when you’ve been down,” and asks God where is the love and joy he promised? It’s dark in my heart, he laments, no blue skies in sight, but regardless, he smiles, because “I know God is working.” This sentiment echoes Paul’s call to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16) and to be content in all circumstances (Phil. 4:11). I’d say that even if we can’t muster a literal smile when life hurts, it’s OK; what’s more important is that we develop an inner bending toward joy, a heart-smile, which trusts that God holds us in his love and carries us in his power.

Purchase the single on iTunes or wherever music is sold; also available on Spotify. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Joyful Lent (Artful Devotion)

Genesis 9:13 by Sawai Chinnawong
Sawai Chinnawong (Thai, 1959–), Genesis 9:13, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 27 × 27 in.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

—Genesis 9:8–17

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MUSIC: Keyboard Sonata in C Major (K. 159, L. 104) by Domenico Scarlatti | Arranged for banjo by Béla Fleck and for mandolin by Edgar Meyer | Performed by Béla Fleck and Chris Thile on Perpetual Motion (2001)

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This art and music may seem inappropriately light and bright for the first Sunday of Lent, a season that’s stereotypically thought of as gloomy and self-deprecating. But the Old Testament reading the Revised Commentary Lectionary assigns to this day is God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood, a passage filled with great hope.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Lent does not mean forty days of beating yourself up. It literally means “springtime,” and it’s a time of renewal in preparation for Easter. Self-examination is a major component, yes, but so is grabbing hold of the divine promise—of God’s wondrous love and mercy.

In my church’s liturgy (and this is common across denominations), the confession of sin is always followed by words of assurance—a verse of scripture, spoken by the pastor, that reminds us of the pardon we receive through Christ. We are not left in the darkness of our failures; we are brought into the light, and given power to live as children of the light. Repentance is a joyous thing! That’s why the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, a Second Vatican Council document, refers to Lent as the “joyful season.” It’s joyful because God’s mercy is amazing.

After forty days on a dark boat, and then some, Noah, his family, and a whole bunch of animals come out to a renewed earth, and to a promise painted across the sky in bright colors that never again will all God’s creation be destroyed. Similarly, during Lent we choose to enter a period of darkness, taking stock of our sin. It can seem like a rocking journey, but it’s really a period of regeneration, and when we arrive at Easter we receive, as confirmation of the new life that’s possible, the resurrected Christ. He’s there for us all along—we need not wait till Lent’s over to enter his forgiveness and to rise with him. But we also don’t want to skip over the necessary steps of first acknowledging the depth of our sin, and confessing it with a contrite heart.

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Excerpt from “The Agreement” by Henry Vaughan, from Silex Scintillans:

But while Time runs, and after it
Eternity, which never ends,
Quite through them both, still infinite,
Thy covenant by Christ extends;
No sins of frailty, nor of youth,
Can foil His merits, and Thy truth.

And this I hourly find, for Thou
Dost still renew, and purge and heal:
Thy care and love, which jointly flow,
New cordials, new cathartics deal.
But were I once cast off by Thee,
I know—my God!—this would not be.

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Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I have a poem planned for publication here at Art & Theology. But I also wrote a short visual meditation for the Anglican Church in North America, which you can find at the bottom of their Lent website, https://giftoflent.org/. It’s on Ted Prescott’s mixed-media artwork All My Sins, which incorporates paper ash, the residue left over from the artist’s burning of a list of his personal sins.

All My Sins by Ted Prescott
Theodore Prescott (American, 1944–), All My Sins, 1996. Cherry, lead, hand-blown glass, paper ash, and silicon, 36.5 × 24.5 × 5 in.

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 First Sunday of Lent, cycle B, click here.