A theological reading of Rodríguez Calero’s acrollages

Last month when I was driving home to Maryland from Connecticut, I decided to stop for an hour or two at the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey. I wanted to see a monumental Nativity painting in their collection by Joseph Stella. It didn’t end up being on display, but I did find many other compelling works. Chief among them was the acrollage painting Christ of the Christians by Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) artist Rodríguez Calero, a variation on the Crucifixion that portrays the violence of the cross in the abstract.

Rodriguez Calero_Christ of the Christians
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Christ of the Christians, 1995. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 36 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey. All photos (except the two details that follow) courtesy of the artist.

Made with acrylic paint, rice paper, imaged paper, colored glazes, and gold leaf, the work is heavily layered. Its focal point is the direct gaze of a young Black man, his head framed by a shaded gray box and haloed in gold. His face is cut off just above the mouth. The Word is muted.

This figure fragment is at the top terminal of a rough-edged cruciform that is rendered in a harsh tar-black embedded with deep splotches of red. Body merges with cross—blood, wood, and flesh.

The whole background is covered in pinks and reds. The color pools and splatters and permeates, representing the pouring out of life.

Standing upright alongside the cross are three stenciled palm branches, alluding to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem just five days earlier. Palm branches were a symbol of triumph in ancient Judaism, hence their being waved to greet the Christ, the “Anointed One,” at the city gate. (Jesus’s followers anticipated a political victory over Rome, little knowing that God had other plans.) In Christian iconography palm branches are associated with martyrdom; in portraits and heavenscapes they are held by saints who met an early end because of their spiritual convictions, just like their Lord.

Their presence in this scene can be read on the one hand as an indictment of human fickleness (lauding Jesus as savior one day, crucifying him the next) and on the other as an assertion of triumph through the unlikely means of death on a cross.

The work can also be read through the lens of Black suffering and liberation. The late Christian theologian James Cone writes about such themes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a landmark book published in 2013, anticipating the Black Lives Matter movement. Cone explains how powerful a symbol the cross has historically been to Black American communities who face racial terror, violence, and oppression. They see in the Crucifixion, in addition to its spiritual implications, a demonstration of God’s solidarity with the oppressed, and hope on the other side. “I’m with you in your suffering,” says the God who hangs on a tree at the behest of a mob, “and death will not have the final word.”

Cone describes the thousands of lynchings of Black men, women, and children in the US as “recrucifixions”—the killing of sons and daughters of God. Two decades earlier, Jamaican American artist Renee Cox made the same connection in her photographic collage It Shall Be Named, just one in a line of artistic works to do so, going as far back as the Harlem Renaissance. Calero’s Christ of the Christians contributes to this tradition.

The gaze of the Christ in her piece is arresting. It confronts. It asserts the sacred humanity of its wearer, despite attempts to blot it out.

Christ of the Christians (detail)

However, the artist tells me that for her, Christ of the Christians is about sacrifice, not violence, racial or otherwise. The man in the painting is the “people’s Messiah,” she says, “the anointed Savior to humankind who was sent to save all from the pain, darkness, and injustices that we see on a regular basis.” The cross is “willful humility, the culmination of prophecy, and the fulfillment of promises,” and the crown is heavenly reward. The trinity of branches represents hope.

One of the features that most struck me about this piece is its raised and varied textures, a hallmark all across the artist’s larger body of work. Calero coined the term “acrollage” to describe her mixed-media technique in which she uses an acrylic emulsifier to transfer collaged images (from found elements or her own photographs) onto painted canvas, adding further embellishments with gold leaf, stenciled patterns, and rice paper. This technique of layering materials, producing veils, suggests a theme of hiddenness and revelation.

Rodríguez Calero, or RoCa for short, was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1959 and moved to Brooklyn when she was a year old. She returned to Puerto Rico after high school to study at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, under master artist Lorenzo Homar, who specialized in printmaking. Then she returned to New York for additional training in painting and collage under artist Leo Manso. She currently resides in New York and New Jersey.

Calero’s work merges Catholic iconography and hip-hop culture, drawing her personal community into the visual lexicon of the sacred. Raised Catholic, she was influenced from an early age by religious imagery at church and school. She brings this influence to bear in her artistic work while also integrating and reflecting the multiracial, multiethnic, urban environment she grew up in. “My inspiration really comes from just being in the neighborhood . . . the people walking the streets,” she says.

Alejandro Anreus, art historian and curator of the major 2015 exhibition Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter-Day Santos at El Museo del Barrio in New York, describes the Nuyorican art aesthetic that was just getting off the ground while Calero studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1976 to 1982:

Starting before 1970—crystalizing possibly with the foundation of the Taller Boricua in New York City—and emerging and developing throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, a specific aesthetic that can be defined as Nuyorican came into being. The aesthetic of New York Puerto Rican art was a diverse fusion of abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction, surrealism and social realism, as well as assemblage and constructions incorporating cultural and ethnic icons. The ethnic and cultural icons reflected several thematic preoccupations, which included Taino and Afro-Hispano imagery, depictions of barrio life, a popular, even populist Catholicism, and the belief that everyone, particularly the poor and marginalized of the neighborhoods, has dignity and inner worth regardless of social status. [exhibition catalog, p. 23]

The Christian doctrine of the imago Dei—that all human beings bear God’s image—is a central theme in Calero’s work. In His Image even adopts this theological language from the book of Genesis in its title, reminding us that God created each and every person with intrinsic and objective value, a reflection of his own divine self.

Rodriguez Calero_In His Image
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), In His Image, 1994. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

The piece shows a Black man dressed in a coat and beanie looking pensive and forlorn, his eyes downcast. Rectilinear pieces of teal-blue handmade paper form a cross behind him, and the outline of a manhole cover labeled “PUBLIC SERVICE” is superimposed over his face, doubling as a halo. In Christian art the halo signifies the light of Christ shining around and through a person, and Calero often adopts that device to underscore the sacred humanity of her subjects.

But the cross-hatching of this round form across the man’s face gives the impression of prison bars. Is he headed to prison, or is that destination merely what others, those with shallow or skewed vision, see when they look at him? Maybe he feels imprisoned by his circumstances. Or perhaps he is experiencing some kind of mental captivity. Whatever the nature of the confinement, those bars need to be broken. God wants every human being to be free and flourishing.

Rodriguez Calero_El Hijo de Dios
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), El Hijo de Dios, 1995. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

The youth in El Hijo de Dios also shines forth God’s image. He looks straight out at the viewer from under his red Karl Kani sweatshirt hood, with a softness and a self-awareness that evoke empathy. A gilded pattern of crosses in diamonds cuts across the middle third of the acrollage, and a dot-rimmed semicircle, a halo fragment, seems to embrace the boy. The delicacy of this intervention over the thick, heavy folds of the cotton sportswear creates an intriguing mix.

To the boy’s right is a collaged face of a male in profile that looks like it could have been taken out of a Picasso painting. He could be an extension of the primary figure, his face set on a path. Or he could be someone who is at cross-purposes with him, as they are oriented at a ninety-degree angle from each other.

Translated “The Son of God,” the title of this acrollage could refer to Jesus Christ, who bears this title in a special sense, as the only begotten of God the Father. The man does seem to embody the vulnerability and determination that characterize Christ in his passion. Alternatively, it could refer to a child of God more generally, as the Spanish hijo is not necessarily male-specific. The particular and the universal are both at play here. We are all God’s children (Acts 17:28–29), equally and eternally beloved.

Rodriguez Calero_Cruz de Loisaida
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Cruz de Loisaida, 1994. Acrollage on canvas, 64 × 42 in.

God’s love reaches especially into places of darkness, even though we don’t always feel it. In Cruz de Loisaida, our eyes are drawn to a monochrome found image of a hand injecting heroin into an arm. This fragment forms part of an abstracted cross, that archetypal symbol of deep suffering. The title, which translates to “Cross of Loisaida,” references a Lower East Side neighborhood with a strong Puerto Rican heritage. The piece laments the pain and anguish of drug addiction and, the artist says, the burdens forced on the Puerto Rican community by the government (“we are the sacrificial lambs”). Red pigment spills forth from the arm, evoking blood.

Rodriguez Calero_Crowned with Thorns
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Crowned with Thorns, 1999. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

Another acrollage that alludes to Christ’s passion is Crowned with Thorns, which is dominated by a large orange halo filled with linear and organic designs and cut out narrowly to reveal the face of a Black man. This headpiece is not obviously a crown of suffering; instead, it seems to convey an unironic air of royalty. It contains palm branches and irradiating gold lines that branch out like the veins of a leaf. And it smolders like fire. Could this be I AM speaking from the burning bush? The lush floral patterns, the Voice abloom?

By virtue of its historical associations, the title connects the man to Christ. With his hands he touches his Sacred Heart.

Rodriguez Calero_The Chosen
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), The Chosen, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 20 × 16 in.

One piece that appropriates unmistakable imagery of Christ is The Chosen: it contains a fragment of a Dutch Renaissance painting in the National Gallery of Christ crowned with thorns. Calero has cropped a detail of the gnarly crown piercing (a Caucasian) Christ’s forehead and collaged it with the face of a Latino man and the locs of a third (presumably a Black man). Her multiracial Jesus is nimbed twice over and emerges as if from a behind gold curtain, his brown eyes holding our gaze. He is surrounded by black-ink prints of flowers and crosses and flanked, as in Christ of the Christians, by golden palm branches. Droplets of red paint are splattered about his face and torso, one resting prominently on his upper right cheek like a tear.

Like Jesus, the Virgin Mary, his mother, is a major religious figure in Puerto Rican culture, and Calero references her in several of her artworks. Ángel y Maria depicts the moment of Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son (Luke 1:26–38).

Rodriguez Calero_Angel y Maria
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Ángel y María, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 36 in.

It’s a stunning image, bringing new life to a subject that has been painted hundreds of thousands of times over the course of history, starting with the ancient Roman catacombs. In Calero’s take, Mary is portrayed as a beautiful young woman of African descent who sits in profile, contemplating the gravity of what has just been asked of her. She holds a bouquet of flowers to her chest—perhaps she was in the midst of picking or arranging them when Gabriel arrived.

Gabriel stands in formality, cognizant of the weight of his message, patiently awaiting a response. His body is rendered in a wash of colors that blend into one another, producing an ethereal look.

Mary’s lips are parted, speaking her yes.

“The theme is love,” Calero told me. “The flowers are a representation of the blessing already inside.”

In the gospel story, this supernatural encounter results in a miraculous pregnancy, pictured in Calero’s La Madonna Negra (The Black Madonna). The image is of the Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Parturition) type—that is, the pregnant Mary. We don’t often see Mary’s bare belly in all its pregnant glory, but here we are given a glimpse and reminded of the bodiliness of the Incarnation. We can even see the linea nigra extending across her bellybutton!

Rodriguez Calero_La Madonna Negra
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), La Madonna Negra, 2007. Acrollage on canvas, 54 × 24 in.

Calero’s Afro-Latina Madonna has two sets of arms. With one, she cradles her third-trimester baby bump and clenches the veil near her face, and the other she extends outward in a gesture of giving, offering the fruit of her womb for the life of the world (notice the printed impression of a fetus in her upper left hand). I love how these multiple gestures capture the conflicting instincts she must have felt—on the one hand, to keep the child to herself, to protect him from harm, and on the other, knowing her ministry is to support his, to share him with everyone. I see both Mary’s fear and her surrender in this image; her very human “What if I’m not ready for this?” and her “Welcome; come, receive.”

Rodriguez Calero_Virgen Maria
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Virgen María, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 34 in. Collection of María Domínguéz-Morales and Juan M. Morales.

There’s also a hybridity in Virgen María, which shows a woman whose face is an amalgam of “every woman,” says the artist. Strong and confident, this Mary takes up space. Streaks of red paint cut across her torso like cords—but she spreads her arms, breaking what binds her. The bottom half of the canvas consists of blues and reds, Mary’s traditional colors, while the top half is gold, signifying the light of God.

“Mary, for me, has always been pictured as passive, and dressed in blue,” Calero told me. “Think about God in heaven, searching the world for the perfect woman to bear his Son. Now, in that state of mind, I thought Mary was chosen for her beauty, strength, compassion, intellect, and sexiness, and must represent all women, hence my Virgen María.”

Just as Calero often composites people of different races and ethnicities, she also occasionally mixes genders, as in Divine Prophet.

Rodriguez Calero_Divine Prophet
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Divine Prophet, 2012. Acrollage on canvas, 54 × 36 in.

This prophet’s face is made up of three collaged elements. A male with long hair and closely cropped facial hair forms the base, but the two eyes, underlined in blue shadow, are clearly a woman’s. And a mystical third eye is patched onto the forehead.

In Eastern spirituality, the third eye, also called the inner eye, provides perception beyond ordinary sight. The prophet, for example, sees visions of a reality that is presently invisible but that will one day be made manifest. The third eye symbolizes a state of enlightenment.

The prophet in this piece could be Jesus, or an Old Testament seer, or a prophet from another faith tradition. If the former, it’s interesting to consider how male and female are both contained in the Godhead, per Genesis 1:27. Although the second person of the Trinity incarnated as a male, there’s a long tradition of ascribing feminine attributes to Christ, from Clement to Ephrem to Anselm to Marguerite d’Oingt to Julian of Norwich. Christ is our Mother, they say, who labors to bring us to birth and feeds us at his breast. Moreover, the biblical book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman, and that woman is associated with Christ.

Centuries of European religious art and its mass-produced derivatives have harnessed the popular imagination to a narrow view of what the sacred looks like. Because of this conditioning through images, most people all over the world, not just in the West, conceive of Jesus, Mary, and the saints—those due honor—as white. Calero challenges that conception, not erasing whites but broadening the tent of sacred imagery to encompass people of color as well.

Most of her “saints” are not historical. They’re ordinary folks from New York’s barrios, or from other US cities—and from today. With their strong frontal poses, direct gazes, and haloes, they reflect the dignified, divine image–bearing status of those whom traditional Christian iconography has tended to exclude.

“Her saints—santos—are latter day and among us, her martyrs are our contemporaries,” says Alejandro Anreus. “They all live and struggle in an urban world filled with tension, even violence, as well as humor, yet open to epiphanies, where miracles can happen.” And, he continues, “her representations of Jesus Christ become all of us, as if reflecting the variety of humanity redeemed by Christ.”

(Regarding Anreus’s crucial last point: I articulated some of my thoughts on the matter a few years ago in this Instagram post.)

Black and brown bodies are beautiful and good, bearing the imprint of God their Creator. Rodríguez Calero helps us see and celebrate that. Bringing her cultural heritage to the fore, she cuts and combines, mixes and matches, contemplates, plays, and intuits, constructing affirming figure-based images of flesh and spirit that, while borrowing Christian visual tropes, are not tethered to Christianity but rather can live and move beyond an orthodox framework.

To learn more about Calero’s art training, her oeuvre, and collage as an art form, see the catalog for her retrospective (written in English and Spanish). You can also visit her website, www.rodriguezcalero.com.

Roundup: Global Christian music; Christologies from the margins; race, gender, and photography

Today’s roundup brings together a theologian (Anderson Jeremiah), an art historian (Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt), and a musician (Eric Lige and friends) who I think complement one another really well!

SONGS:

Eric Lige [previously] is “a music-maker who promotes Jesus, Justice, Faith, and Community.” He is the worship director at Ethnos Community Church in San Diego and the co-executive producer of The Ethnos Project, which creates a platform for new and emerging global voices in musical worship to be heard worldwide. Especially since COVID hit in 2019, he has been assembling multinational teams of musicians to produce YouTube videos, many of which are livestreamed as part of Ethnos worship services. Here are three examples (view more on Lige’s YouTube channel):

>> “Ξεδιψασμένος (No Longer Thirsty)” by Kostas Nikolaou: A contemporary Christian worship song in Greek, about how Christ, the living water, quenches our thirst for love and purpose. The lead vocalist is Nefeli Papanagi—and wow, do I love her voice!

>> “Ua Mau (Hosanna)” by Moses W. Kaaneikawahaale Keale (aka Keale Ta Kaula): Reyn and Joy Nishii perform this nineteenth-century Hawaiian hymn by Keale “the Prophet,” who converted to Christianity after calling on God during a hunting accident and finding rescue. The first verse translates to “Perpetual is the righteousness / That comes from the Father above / Let us gather together / In his goodness and grace.”

>> “Love’s in Need of Love Today” by Stevie Wonder: Edward Chen and friends—from Canada, the United States, Armenia, Venezuela, and Mexico—perform the opening track from Stevie Wonder’s Grammy-winning album Songs in the Key of Life. “God gave me this gift, and this particular song was a message I was supposed to deliver,” Wonder has said. “The concept I had in mind was that for love to be effective, it has to be fed.” See the full list of credits in the description on the video page. Eric Lige is the one in the maroon shirt.

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LECTURES:

>> “Many Faces of Jesus: Christologies from the Margins” by the Revd. Canon Dr. Anderson H. M. Jeremiah, October 12, 2021: Anderson Jeremiah is a senior lecturer in the politics, philosophy, and religion department at Lancaster University in the UK, whose areas of expertise include Christian theology in Asia, postcolonial approaches to theology, Dalit studies, liberation theology, modern missionary movements, and inculturation and faith. Ordained in the Church of South India (part of the Anglican Communion), he was installed as Canon Theologian of Blackburn Cathedral in September 2021, making him the first Dalit to be appointed to that role in any English cathedral.

In this half-hour online talk given last fall for the Diocese of Manchester, Jeremiah discusses the Incarnation as a continuous event—Christ being born into human cultures—as expressed through a selection of visual artworks from Ghana, Bolivia, China, Japan, and India. These images subvert the predominant Western image of Christ and sometimes provide critique. New to me was the black marble crucifix from the Anglican chapel inside Cape Coast Castle, a former trading post (now a museum) where enslaved Africans were held before being loaded onto ships and sold in the Americas. I’m not sure who commissioned the sculpture or when it was placed at this site, but it definitely looks modern.

The Q&A that followed on the original Zoom event is not included in the video, but here’s one of Jeremiah’s comments from it that I transcribed: “Jesus is not foreign to my own experience; this Jesus is part and parcel of my own existential reality. It [the image] enables people who are seeking peace and emancipation; [they are] emboldened in that process of seeing themselves reflected in the image of Jesus. The normative image the church has been holding on to has not created that space.” When one attendee asked if images of white Jesus are always “wrong” or to be discouraged, Jeremiah replied that there’s nothing wrong with such an image in itself, but the problem is when it is imposed on the entire world as the only way of looking at Jesus. “When we hold up one image as normative, we lose the diverse ways God intends to manifest himself in diverse contexts,” he said. (I couldn’t agree more!)

Bolivian crucifix
In July 2015 Bolivian president Evo Morales (who is Aymara) presented to Pope Francis a crucifix sculpted in the shape of a hammer and sickle. The crucifix is based on a design by Luís Espinal (1932–1980), a Jesuit priest assassinated in 1980 by right-wing militia. Bolivia’s communications minister, Marianela Paco, told Bolivian radio that “the sickle evokes the peasant, the hammer the carpenter, representing humble workers, God’s people.” Photo: AP.

Raj, Solomon_The Lord Remembers the Hungry
Solomon Raj (Indian, 1921–2019), The Lord Remembers the Hungry: Liberation from Hunger, 2006 (based on the 1988 original). Woodcut, from the series “Liberation in Luke’s Gospel.”

To hear more from the Rev. Dr. Anderson Jeremiah, see “Dalit Theology in the Context of World Christianity: Subversion and Transgression,” another excellent online talk that he gave in June 2021 at the invitation of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture. And this Grace Podcast episode from October, where he briefly discusses the From Lament to Action report of the Church of England’s Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce (published April 22, 2021), the contextual nature of all theology (contra the view that white Euro-American theology is somehow universal, whereas theologies that come from Africa, for example, need to be qualified), and cultural appreciation versus appropriation. “I’m trying to capture the experiences of communities through the stories they tell about Jesus,” Jeremiah says. Follow him on Twitter @TheOutsider40.

>> “The Loving Look: Or, How Art History Taught Me About the Difference Between Structure and Direction When Looking at Images of Race and Gender” by Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, October 12, 2017: Art historian Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, a professor at Covenant College who researches representations of race and gender in art and visual culture from the nineteenth century to the present, is one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram (@elissabrodt). I love how she helps people understand and use the tools of the discipline of art history. She teaches us how images work and how to interrogate them.

In this undergraduate lecture (starts at 4:06), Weichbrodt discusses how photography has been used to shape racial bias and even construct race, as well as gender, focusing on a famous 1957 photograph of school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. She shows how this single photo is part of a larger web of meaning that contemporary news photos also play into. We’re always interpreting and categorizing images in relationship to things we’ve already seen, Weichbrodt says, creating a mental archive—for example, a file for “blackness,” a file for “womanhood.” And “as Christians called to recognize the dignity of God’s image in all people, we have to do actual work to acknowledge how our own archives may have hampered or distorted our love for our neighbors.” To look more faithfully, we need to look more; we need to build a broader archive.

For related content from Weichbrodt, see her 2018 series of articles for The Witness BCC: “Representing Race: Why Do Images Matter?,” “Representing Race: Lenses for Interpretation,” and “Restorative Looking.” You can also view a longer and more recent version of this lecture, “Looking Justly,” given October 30, 2019, at Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, which includes a Q&A.

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NEW PLAYLIST: February 2021 (Art & Theology): Continuing my initiative to share good music from the Judeo-Christian tradition . . . here’s a new (nonthematic) playlist I put together, which includes a fifteenth-century Jewish hymn (with a contemporary melody by Ugandan rabbi Gershom Sizomu), a country one-hit wonder from the sixties (thanks to my dad, a regular ’60s Gold listener, for introducing me to this one!), a virtuoso guitar composition by Bruce Cockburn inspired by Jesus’s first miracle, an original gospel song by Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, the opening theme song of an antebellum television drama, and more.

Roundup: Pool of Bethesda, Argentine tango hymn, Ernesto Cardenal, beauty and suffering, “Spiritual Cosmonaut” playlist, and “The Two Popes”

VISUAL COMMENTARIES: “The Pool of Bethesda” by Naomi Billingsley: In a recent contribution to the online Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously], Naomi Billingsley has compiled and written about three artworks based on John 5:1–18, a story in which Jesus heals a paralyzed man at a reservoir in Jerusalem. A source of hydration, cleansing, and tranquility, the pool of Bethesda, Billingsley says, is a symbol that transcends individual religious traditions.

Pool of Bethesda

She discusses William Hogarth’s painting of the subject for a hospital, showing sick patients receiving care; a “Dreamtime” drawing from Aboriginal Australian artist Trevor Nickolls’s Bethesda series, created during his recovery from a major car accident; and The Angel of the Waters fountain in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park, designed by Emma Stebbins in 1842 to celebrate an aqueduct that brought clean water to New York City and improved public health (and which you may recognize as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples in the opening sequence of the movie Godspell).

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ARGENTINE TANGO HYMN: “Tenemos Esperanza” (We Have Hope): This hymn text was written in 1979 by Federico Pagura (1923–2016), a Methodist bishop and human rights champion from Argentina, and set to tango music by Homero Perera (1939–2019) of Uruguay. Argentinian pastor Federico “Fede” Apecena, who lives in Georgia in the US, recently introduced the song to his friend Josh Davis, who heads the multicultural worship ministry Proskuneo, and the two banged out this awesome video performance. “The song is a record of all that Jesus came to do and to be,” Apecena explains at the end of the video. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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OBITUARY: Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), poet and priest who mixed religion and politics in his commitment to social justice in Nicaragua, dies at 95: A Catholic priest, poet, and political revolutionary from Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal was a controversial figure. He supported the Sandinista insurrection against the dictatorial Somoza regime in the seventies and, when the Sandinista government (which claimed to integrate Marxist and Christian ideals) came to power, served as its minister of culture from 1979 to 1987. He viewed this post as an extension of his priestly office and, refusing to quit it at Pope John Paul II’s behest, was forthwith suspended from the priesthood in 1984. (Pope Francis absolved him of canonical censure in February 2019, permitting him to administer the sacraments once again.)

Cardenal’s most enduring achievement was his 1966 founding of a religious community among the peasant farmers and fishermen of the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. He saw to the construction of a small wooden church, where he led collaborative Masses: instead of giving a homily on the week’s assigned Gospel reading, he opened up dialogues about it with his parishioners, relishing their insights. Transcripts of these conversations were published in four volumes as El Evangelio en Solentiname (The Gospel in Solentiname) between 1975 and 1977, with English translations appearing in 1976–82—a classic work of liberation theology.

Besides cultivating the islanders’ interest in the Bible, Cardenal also took notice of their creative talents. He brought in artists to lead workshops, which led to the development of a primitivist art school that achieved international recognition for its paintings, many of them depicting Jesus’s birth, ministry, and passion taking place in Solentiname, in and around the familiar thatched-roof buildings, blue waters, and lush vegetation. In 1984 Orbis Books editors Philip and Sally Scharper combined several such images with a heavily abridged version of The Gospel in Solentiname and published it as The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname, a slim, full-color hardcover that I highly recommend.

Guevara, Gloria_Visitation
Gloria Guevara (Nicaraguan), The Visitation, 1981 [source: The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname]
“It was the Gospel which radicalized us politically,” Cardenal said. “The peasants began to understand the core of the Gospel message: the announcement of the kingdom of God, that is, the establishment on this earth of a just society, without exploiters or exploited.” Afraid of the dangerous ideas taking root in Solentiname, Somoza’s National Guard razed the settlement to the ground in 1977, and Cardenal was forced to flee to Costa Rica. He gave his blessing to his community’s decision to join the Sandinistas, the people’s army, to attempt an overthrow of Somoza, a victory they achieved in 1979. The surviving peasants returned to Solentiname to rebuild, and their practice of art and faith continues to thrive to the present day.

Cardenal is also known as a poet. I’ve read only one volume of his poetry, in English translation: Apocalypse: And Other Poems (New Directions, 1977). I didn’t connect well with a lot of it, but it does have a few gems, like “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” “The Cosmos Is His Sanctuary (Psalm 150),” and “Behind the Monastery,” reprinted here in full:

Behind the monastery, down the road,
there is a cemetery of worn-out things
where lie smashed china, rusty metal,
cracked pipes and twisted bits of wire,
empty cigarette packs, sawdust,
corrugated iron, old plastic, tires beyond repair:
all waiting for the Resurrection, like ourselves.

(translated from the Spanish by Robert Pring-Mill)

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LECTURE: “On Beauty” by Natalie Carnes: “Beauty has been leveraged in ways that wound us, with legacies of misogyny, class hatred, and racial injustice,” says Dr. Natalie Carnes, associate professor of theology at Baylor University. “And yet I want to suggest that beauty tends those same wounds, and can be found in those same wounds, for beauty is a name for God.”

In this half-hour talk given November 1, 2017, at Dallas Theological Seminary as part of school’s Arts Week, Carnes examines the paradox, expressed in the church’s art and theology across history, that God is both beautiful and not beautiful. In his suffering, Carnes says—his entering the ravaged and scarred places of our humanity—God does not renounce his beauty but reveals it.

The divine presence in grotesque suffering is not a departure from the divine life but characteristic of it. And that movement into the grotesque is not antagonistic to beauty but the revelation of it. God’s faithfulness goes by way of intimacy with not-God, and beauty by way of the grotesque. The beauty that rejects suffering is false, and the one who follows the call of beauty faithfully will find herself in the scarred places of the world. Beauty, after all, is a name for God, and God does not abandon divinity in identifying with the suffering and afflicted but expresses through such identification the very marker of divine life.

This is not to say that suffering, affliction, or poverty is beautiful. Beauty is distinct from the mode of its arriving. Poverty and suffering can be important sites of beauty, even as they are not themselves beautiful, because they mediate the beauty of the God who is charity. . . .

Beauty and Suffering
Left: Michelangelo, Last Judgment (detail), 1536–41 | Right: Matthais Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), 1515

Natalie Carnes is the author of Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia, and (forthcoming) Motherhood: A Confession.

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PLAYLIST: “Spiritual Cosmonaut,” compiled by Latifah Alattas: Last month singer-songwriter and music producer Latifah Alattas [previously] curated a short Spotify playlist of “Spiritual songs that stir my soul. Melodies that tap into mystery. Sounds that open me up to the wonder and peace of God.” It’s great!

Alattas is the frontwoman of the band Page CXVI [previously], which has just returned from a six-year hiatus. I’m so moved by their recently released rendition of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” with piano, synthesizer, and pedal steel guitar. Alattas has made the song more communal, subbing out all first-person singular pronouns for first-person plural, even rewording whole lines, like the last two of the chorus, which become “Amidst the pain of this world you grieve with us—unfailing faithfulness, dwelling so near.” Or the final line of the final verse, which she changed from “Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” to “Blessings for all, Christ within us resides.”

People who are attached to singing the song a certain way might object to such lyrical revisions, but I see them, along with the creative musical liberties she takes, as helping to bring out the themes that are already there. Alattas helped me to hear this classic hymn with new ears.

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FILM: The Two Popes (2019), dir. Fernando Meirelles: I recently watched this Oscar-nominated biographical drama and enjoyed it more than I thought I would! I wasn’t expecting the respect it gives to its subjects and to Christianity. Its title refers to the fact that, for the first time in six hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope and one retired pope, the “pope emeritus.” (When Benedict announced his resignation in 2013, it shocked the world, as it’s expected that, if chosen, you serve in that role until death.)

The movie is primarily about the relationship between the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) and the progressive Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio), which starts out antagonistically but buds into a friendship of sorts. It’s dialogue-heavy (it was adapted from a stage play), but in the most interesting way, as the two engage in “a series of philosophical and dogmatic discussions and disagreements about the nature of faith and forgiveness, and the direction of a church struggling to maintain relevance in the modern world” [source].

But it’s not just about the church’s struggle or the burdens of high office; it’s also about personal faith as a struggle—how to discern one’s calling in life, how to hear God’s voice and deal with his silence, and how to forgive oneself for one’s own tragic silences (in Benedict’s case, regarding the sex abuse perpetrated by clergy; in Francis’s, regarding the Dirty War in his home country of Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties, while he was serving as priest).

Francis’s backstory, of which I knew nothing beforehand, is told in flashbacks. (The fiancée is fictional, though the real Francis has admitted to having romantic crushes as a teenager and even as a seminarian.) The portrayal of both men, by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, is very humanizing (not initially for Benedict, but his character gets there)—and not just because of the glimpse it provides into Francis’s life prior to the cloth, but also, in part, because of little nods it gives to their interests beyond the church, like Francis’s love of soccer and tango dancing, and Benedict’s piano playing and Fanta drinking. And because it shows their personal fallibility, their regret over past misdeeds.

It should be noted that the meeting of the two men at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo prior to Benedict’s resignation is invented, as are many of their lengthy dialogues, which are nonetheless inspired by speeches, letters, and other writings of theirs, brought into conversation with one another by playwright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.

Roundup: Rock Hall inductions; James Cone; lynching memorial; “Christ in Alabama”

NEW ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAMERS:

Last month Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), one of the few female guitar evangelists of the ’30s and ’40s and the first gospel superstar, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was named an “Early Influence” for her electric sound and original guitar picking, which influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Johnny Cash, among many others. (“Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.”) Performing (controversially) both sacred and secular music, in churches and nightclubs, Tharpe collaborated with heavy-hitting artists of the time, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and she even hired a white group, the Jordanaires, to sing backup during one of her tours.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Photo: Chris Ware/Getty Images

Two of Tharpe’s best-known songs are her versions of the Negro spirituals “Up Above My Head” and “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” but probably my two favorites of hers are “Use Me” and “Two Loaves of Fishes and Five Loaves of Bread”:

In 2011 BBC Four premiered Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll, a documentary written and directed by UK filmmaker Mick Csaky. Its US television premiere was in 2013, part of PBS’s American Masters series. Watch the trailer below, or watch the full documentary online.

If you’re not familiar with Tharpe, you need to be! My husband and I cycle through dozens of her songs regularly on our customized Spotify gospel playlist. If you enjoy the documentary and want to learn more, check out the biography Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle Wald.

Another April Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who’s more of a household name, is Nina Simone (1933–2003). One of her most famous songs (certainly her most sampled) is “Sinnerman,” a Negro spiritual inspired by Revelation 6:12–17:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

When Simone (then Eunice Waymon) was a young girl, her mother, a Methodist minister, had her play the song on the piano at revival and prayer meetings as a means of compelling sinners to the altar. (Before pursuing her career as a singer and recording artist, she wanted to be a classical concert pianist. She plays the piano on “Sinnerman” and many other tracks.) Because she recorded her version of “Sinnerman” at the height of her civil rights activism, in 1965, some have speculated that the song is a veiled condemnation of the sins of white America.   Continue reading “Roundup: Rock Hall inductions; James Cone; lynching memorial; “Christ in Alabama””