As the church continues in this fifty-day season of Eastertide to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, here are some songs I’ve come across for the occasion and really enjoyed. A few are brand-new, while others are new performances.
Good Shepherd New York, a church in Manhattan, has a phenomenal team of in-house musicians and collaborators from coast to coast. They provide music for weekly digital worship services as well as release recordings under the name Good Shepherd Collective. Check out their Easter service from April 4! The songs are listed below.
“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” by Charles Wesley / “Celebrate Jesus” by Gary Oliver (1:35)
Last year the Fundación la Caixa in Barcelona launched project #YoCanto Aleluya, soliciting professional and amateur singers alike throughout Spain and Portugal to be part of a “virtual choir,” a phenomenon that has exploded since the pandemic has made live musical concerts a health risk. Participants were asked to submit a video of themselves singing Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus. Igor Cortadellas of Igor Studio then developed a concept for digitally merging all 352 submissions by projecting them on the interior architecture of Barcelona’s Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (or overlaying them in postproduction?), and he directed a small team to execute this vision. What a feat! The final video was released a few months ago at Christmastime.
“Hallelujah” concludes part 2 of 3 of the oratorio, which covers Christ’s passion and death, resurrection, ascension, and the first spreading of the gospel. The words of the chorus are taken from Revelation 19:6, 11:15, and 19:16. For another blog post featuring an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, see the Artful Devotion “Worthy Is the Lamb.”
“Keep the Feast (Pascha Nostrum)” by Ryan Flanigan: For this new song, Ryan Flanigan of Liturgical Folk adapted the words of the Pascha Nostrum (“Our Passover”), a traditional Christian hymn for Eastertide that, after the Reformation, was preserved in English in the Book of Common Prayer. It is based on 1 Corinthians 5:7–8, Romans 6:9–11, and 1 Corinthians 15:20–22. Flanigan wrote a fun new melody for it, which he demos here.
“Judah’s Lion” | Words by Fulbert of Chartres, ca. 975–1028, and Rick Barnes, 2016 | Music by Rick Barnes, 2016 | Performed by Covenant Presbyterian Virtual Choir and Orchestra, Birmingham, Alabama, 2021
Though I grew up in the church, for a long time I was ignorant of the vibrant threads of lament and justice that run throughout scripture. I imbibed the message that good Christians never complain or get angry or question God or call him to account, that “rejoicing always” means always putting on a happy face (dwelling in sadness was tantamount to distrust), and that social justice is a “liberal agenda” and a distraction from the gospel. As my faith has matured and my engagement with the scriptures has deepened, my eyes have been opened to the embeddedness of justice in the biblical narrative, and how any lack of justice is cause for lament.
Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (2012) was instrumental in helping me see how social justice is an expression of God’s own heart and an important part of the church’s mission, not tangential to the gospel but an extension of it. My earlier conception of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, was so impoverished, as I had reduced it down to nothing more than a private transaction between me and God regarding the eternal destination of my soul. As I began to see, through reading scripture, that God cares about this world, and he cares about people’s souls and bodies, I came to realize how expansive the gospel really is, with real implications for the here and now. We may be in right relationship with God, or think we are, but are we in right relationship with our neighbors and, I would add, with the rest of God’s creation? That is, do we live justly, as God commands, which includes supporting policies that promote, as best as possible, the flourishing of all, not just ourselves or others like us?
Keller shows how the Christianese terms “sin” and “righteousness” have to do not only with personal morality but also with systems, and how “justice” is more multifaceted than merely “punishment.” Punishing wrongdoers and reestablishing rights is one type of justice, called rectifying (or retributive) justice, or mishpat in Hebrew. But primary justice (aka distributive justice) is making sure goods and opportunities are more equitably distributed in society. It’s proactive. “Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else” (11). Keller says that when these two Hebrew words appear together in the Bible, the best translation of the compound is “social justice.” So, for example, when Psalm 33:5 says, “He loveth righteousness [tzadeqah] and judgment [mishpat],” perhaps a better modern translation would be “The LORD loves social justice.”
The truncated “ticket to heaven,” “me and Jesus” understanding of salvation shows up in countless Christian worship songs, which form, or malform, our imaginations. I’m not at all dismissing the need for personal salvation (that is a critical component of the gospel!), or suggesting that we ought not to be looking toward eternity. What I am saying is that our relationship with Jesus, including our transformative experience of his love and grace, should have a profound impact on how we relate to and advocate for our neighbors, and our conception of heaven should be as huge and as glorious as the Bible alludes to (the entire world renewed and in harmony under the headship of Christ)—and we should start living into that vision NOW, even as we await Christ’s return. I often wonder whether, if there had been more biblical justice–oriented songs circulating and in church use during my upbringing, my deep hurt over the brokenness of the world and thus my sense of social responsibility as a Christian would have developed sooner.
Founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell, The Porter’s Gate is a music collective whose mission is to be a “porter” for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. Their first album, Work Songs (2017), explores the concept of vocation in both the public and private spheres. That was followed up by Neighbor Songs (2019), centered on the communal aspect of Christian living and of God’s future, and the embodied love at the heart of the gospel.
And now, released this month, are two companion albums: Lament Songs and Justice Songs. Recorded by a diverse group of musicians in July 2020 on a farm in Virginia, the albums interweave fragments from the Psalms with biblical prophecies and apocalypses, blessings, Gospel stories, and protest chants, crafting a robust kingdom theology that promotes constructive engagement with contemporary issues and a looking toward the reconciliation of all things in Christ. “We fight for the victories we know You will win” (a lyric from “Justicia”) is a good encapsulation.
Political corruption, police brutality, racism, mass incarceration, sexual violence, economic exploitation, and war are all referenced, either implicitly or explicitly, as forms of oppression that need to be toppled, as they are an affront to God, marring his image.
Full of heartbreak and hope, the songs are shepherding me out of my tendency toward cynicism and helping me recapture the beauty of God’s vision for the world. They’re saturated in biblical language. An antidote to the all-too-common escapism theology present in some Christian music, they catalyze the church to weep with those who are weeping (Romans 12:15), to bear the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2), and to participate in God’s work of renewal in the world. God has not redeemed us to wait idly by while sin tightens its grip on society. No, he calls us to sow the seeds of his kingdom in anticipation of a bountiful harvest. To walk in the power of the Spirit, into dark corners, bringing light.
The Porter’s Gate seeks to provide songs for corporate worship, and all these would (potentially) be appropriate in that setting; for churches that aren’t used to the practice of lament or to engaging justice issues, some advance education and pastoral guidance will be in order. Some songs will naturally land better in some churches than in others. Some are challenging—and that’s a good thing, as challenge tends to grow us.
As one would expect, God is supplicated throughout the songs. Entreaties include
Come, Jesus, come
Be our light
Drive out the darkness
End all the violence
Do not be silent
Illuminate the shadows
Keep the enemy back
Be our refuge
Make me an instrument
Help me restore
And God is abundantly praised, and his promises laid claim to.
The songwriters on the two albums are Isaac Wardell, Latifah Alattas, Kate Bluett, Jessica Fox, Jon Guerra, Casey J, Wendell Kimbrough, Leslie Jordan, Dan Marotta, Orlando Palmer, John Swinton, Gregory Thompson, Liz Vice, Keith Watts, Tina Colón Williams, and Paul Zach.
As the writers would acknowledge, the general content and ethos of the songs are not “new” or alien to Christianity. If you cringe at the thought of bringing current events into worship or singing a confession of corporate sin or expressing sadness or outrage to God, just know that faithful Christians have been doing it since the beginning, and your discomfort may be because you haven’t been exposed to church traditions outside your own. Ecumenicism is an important aspect of The Porter’s Gate’s identity, says Isaac Wardell—an ecumenicism that says, “I come with gifts of the Spirit of my tradition, but I come also with the poverty of my tradition, looking for the charisms and the gifts of your tradition.” And I love that about the project.
Because I’m eager for others to see the biblical groundedness of the songs (which will be obvious to many upon first listening, but maybe not to those who are more selectivist in their Bible reading), and because I’m a musical worship leader who approaches worship music with great discernment of the theology it espouses, I’m going to point out just some of the scriptural connections in the songs.
Acknowledging that the world is not right, and mourning specific instances of that unrighteousness, is the first step in justice work. It’s called lament. Lament cries out, “Why, God?” and “How long?” Honest expressions of woe are not irreverent. The Bible is full of such language. The fact that lament is addressed to God means that faith has not been abandoned; on the contrary, lament leads to a renewed confidence in God.
The first song on Lament Songs, “Wake Up, Jesus” (feat. Liz Vice), takes as its conceit the story of Jesus’s calming the storm after being woken up by his scared disciples, but it is sung in medias res, from the vantage point of one who is caught in a storm that is still raging. “Jesus, when you gonna wake up? . . . Won’t you rise up?” Again, maybe you’ve always assumed this kind of forthrightness is forbidden in prayer, but it’s in perfect sync with the way the biblical psalmists, for example, relate to God; take Psalm 44: “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? / Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. / Why do you hide your face / and forget our misery and oppression?” (vv. 23–24). (See more biblical examples of this demand at https://artandtheology.org/2019/07/09/rise-up-artful-devotion/.)
When the instrumental intro to the second song begins, we recognize the famous passion chorale tune by Hassler, and we ready ourselves to sing “O Sacred Head . . .”—but instead we get “O Sacred Neck.” The word change is jarring. Why are we talking about Jesus’s neck? Then with the next phrase, “pressed down by blows and knees,” it becomes clear that the reference is to black victims of police violence, like George Floyd, who died in May after an officer, arresting him for trying to make a purchase with a counterfeit $20 bill, knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes while he pled for his life and then died. (Two other officers assisted in restraining him, and another prevented onlookers from intervening.)
VIDEO TALK: “The Breath of Life: Why Art Matters in a Pandemic” by James K.A. Smith: In this half-hour Zoom talk released June 2, Image journal editor in chief Jamie Smith [previously] discusses the ability of the arts to stimulate our cultural imagination in much-needed ways. “The arts matter in a pandemic,” he says, “because they shape us for the work of reshaping and rebuilding society. In other words, we all need artists to continue creating for us so the rest of us can cultivate the imagination we need to re-create our common life, our social bonds.” And again: “The arts train our imagination so that we relearn to see what we need to see. . . . It’s art as imagination therapy, it’s art as an ophthalmology of the soul that we need in order to build and sustain and restore the institutions of a healthy, flourishing society. . . . If we’re going to imagine the world otherwise, we need imaginations that are trained in subtlety, that have been humbled by mystery, and that are infused with infinity.”
At 14:44 Smith introduces three ways in which art matters during and after a pandemic: art helps us (1) attend, (2) transcend, and (3) mend. That is, art helps us attend more carefully to the world and our neighbors, calling sometimes for gratitude, sometimes for grief, often both; art helps us transcend despair, attesting to the “something more” we long for (“the arts enable us to transcend the tragic when they invite us into a joy that forgets nothing”); and art helps us mend our tattered social fabric by helping us to better understand one another and to imagine possibilities. For each of these functions he provides a few concrete examples, including the current Home Alone Together exhibition.
Along these same lines . . . at the end of the Makers & Mystics podcast episode “Art as Healing,” recorded live last year at The Farm House in Charlottesville, Virginia, and released June 5, 2020, host Stephen Roach reads an excerpt from a book he’s writing:
In our present day, it can be easy to conclude from the various crises taking place around the world, all the injustice and political unrest, the rampant poverty and environmental threats, persecution and killings, diseases and displacements, that art and beauty are mere luxury. It could even make some feel that to focus on art and beauty is insensitive or shortsighted. However, I want to suggest that it’s precisely because of these desperate situations that the artist is called upon to beautify the world with art and engage these issues from a vantage point of hope.
The desperate situation in our world calls for the artist to emerge as a prophetic voice for change and to offer heaven’s alternatives. I’m reminded of the example of Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi, who countered the tragedy of war by playing music at the sites of car-bomb explosions, with smoldering buildings in the background of his concertos. Wasfi said, “The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty, and compassion.”
This is the call of the artist in collaboration with God: we are called to be the architects of hope and to counter the destruction of life with the opposite spirit in beauty and creativity.
Here’s a video of Wasfi playing an original cello composition in the destroyed buildings of Al Shifa Hospital in Mosul, Iraq, in September 2018, where some two thousand explosive hazards were removed by UNMAS (United Nations Mine Action Service):
It reminds me of a photograph by Julie Adnan that I saw in National Geographic a decade ago and that, of all the extraordinary photos published in that magazine, has stuck with me the most. Its caption reads, “Some 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, in a Sulaymaniyah music hall ravaged by war, looting, and neglect, a violin-playing boy sounds a note of hope. His teacher, Azad Maaruf, lives there, instructing scores of students.”
The expression “fiddling while Rome burns,” which legend says the emperor Nero did in 64 AD, is used deprecatingly to refer to the doing of something trivial and irresponsible during a crisis. But beauty is not trivial, and its pursuit during times of crisis does not indicate apathy. I love that this little boy wants to play music while bombs sound out around him. Making art can be a daring act of resistance, an assertion of and call to common humanity, a better way. It’s life-affirming. As artist Laura Bon says: “Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.”
Every Sunday since March 15, Good Shepherd New York (“an interdenominational church helping New Yorkers embody the love of Christ for the good of our neighbors”) has been releasing a worship service video with liturgy, prayer, sermon, open communion—and phenomenal music led by associate pastor David Gungor, which engages current events. The whole services are worth watching/participating in, but here are a few musical highlights I’ve queued up. I especially like the medleys, which blend together excerpts from a range of songs:
“Way Maker”– Written by Sinach (Osinachi Kalu) – Performed by Zanbeni and Benny Prasad – This husband-wife duo [previously] brings a fusion of R&B, jazz, and Indian classical music to this 2015 gospel song.
EXHIBITION / VIRTUAL ART TOUR: Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour: To celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the laying of its first foundation stone, Salisbury Cathedral organized a major exhibition this year, which was three years in the making. After the art was sited and installed both inside the building and outside on the lawns, COVID-19 hit, and the cathedral was forced to close. But the planning team adapted to the setback, developing a virtual tour that uses panorama technology to enable the viewer to enter the cathedral virtually, watch a video introduction, and navigate around the exhibition space by clicking on thumbnail images of the works and links to the corresponding catalog pages.
Curated by Jacquiline Creswell, who has led the cathedral’s visual arts program for the past eleven years, the exhibition features twenty-nine works of art by significant artists of the modern and contemporary eras, including Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, Antony Gormley, Mark Wallinger, Shirazeh Houshiary, and Subodh Gupta. Nine of the works are from the cathedral’s permanent collection, while the other twenty were specially brought in, of which two were newly commissioned: the abstract, solar-powered mobile in the nave by Daniel Chadwick, and the light installation in the north porch by Bruce Munro.
The beautifully photographed, ninety-page exhibition catalog is available for free download from the Spirit and Endeavour page of the cathedral website. Besides providing commentary on all the artworks, it also includes an essay by Sandy Nairne that discusses significant art commissions by British churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the difference between viewing art in a cathedral versus a museum gallery. Another available resource is a guide for kids with questions and activities. While I do hope the interior portion of the exhibition is able to open to visitors soon, I’m grateful that the online resources enable me to “visit” from my living room in the US.
PSALM 13 SETTINGS FROM INDIA: In November 2015 a group of musicians from Poona Faith Community Church in Pune, India, composed and recorded worship songs in several of the country’s languages. Because Psalm 13 is assigned to today’s lectionary, here are three settings of that lament, in Marathi, Hindi, and Nepali. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
(This psalm has also been impactfully adapted by Isaac Wardell, as “How Long,” on Bifrost Arts’ 2016 Lamentations album.)
ARTICLE: “Searching for a Jesus Who Looks More Like Me” by Eric V. Copage: I was interviewed the other week for this New York Times piece on multiethnic images of Christ. I comment on paintings by Wisnu Sasongko (Indonesian), Greg Weatherby (Aboriginal Australian), Emmanuel Garibay (Filipino), and Solomon Raj (Indian), and helped select a few of the other images.
Of those Christians who even permit images of Jesus, some hold to a strict literalism and object to images that show him as anything other than a first-century Jew from Israel-Palestine—even though these same literalists would rightly insist that no image is literally Jesus. As I hope is clear from my website, I embrace a wide range of Christological imagery, which I feel reflects the universal presence and revelation of God. (“Christ is all, and in all,” as the apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 3:11; he continues to manifest spiritually, and through his ecclesial body, all over the world.) I’m not so proud to assume that my way of picturing Jesus is the most right or authoritative; I need others to help me see Jesus more fully, more truly. Like C. S. Lewis said, “My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.” And historical realism is not the only, or even necessarily the best (depends on context), art style to show who Jesus is.
Even though the historical Jesus never wore a full-face moko (tattoo) like the Maori, as Sofia Minson paints him, nor did he sit on a lotus flower when he taught his disciples, nor did he appear to Peter, James, and John transfigured between two Yoruba deities, these images and others like them tell us something about Jesus. At a broad level, they proclaim the Incarnation—God in flesh, dwelling among us, as us, that is, fully human. The historical Jesus existed in a specific time and place, and had ethnic particularities, but his coming was not just for the Jews but for the Gentiles too, and not just for his day, for but all time. Through symbol and metaphor and materiality, artists make this truth real.
UPDATED BLOG POSTS
Occasionally if I’ve covered an art topic in the past and then come across a new image that fits that topic perfectly, I will add it as an addendum to the original post. I’ve done that with two Eastertide posts.
“‘She mistook him for the gardener’”: Humanity was born in a garden and reborn in a garden, as biblical scholars like N. T. Wright are keen to point out, with Easter morning marking the launch of new creation. In art history the resurrected Christ is sometimes amusingly shown carrying gardening tools when he encounters Mary Magdalene outside his tomb—to explain the case of mistaken identity that John records, perhaps, but more likely to establish a metaphor. Two of the paintings I’ve added to this post are by Janpeter Muilwijk, whose New Gardener from 2017 shows the freshly risen Christ in a white T-shirt and overalls, heading with open arms toward Mary, who is dressed like a bride to receive him. (Mary is modeled after the artist’s daughter Mattia, who died.) Butterflies alight on each of Jesus’s five wounds, marking them as sites of transformation, and the flowering branches of a tree crown him with spring glory.
“The Unnamed Emmaus Disciple: Mary, wife of Cleopas?”: Written in 2017, this is one of Art & Theology’s most visited posts. In it I conjecture that the pilgrim who traveled with Cleopas from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the famous Easter story could have been a woman, perhaps Cleopas’s wife. Several artists have conjectured the same, and besides adding to this compilation three Emmaus paintings that the artist Maximino Cerezo Barredo sent me after the initial publication, I’ve also added one by Jyoti Sahi, which shows Jesus sitting with the two disciples—one male, one female—on the floor of a small roadside dwelling, breaking chapati (Indian flatbread) together. He is ablaze with glory, evoking his earlier revelations as I AM in the burning bush before Moses and to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration.
“I’ve heard from so many parents recently that their children are struggling with anxiety, fear, frustration, sadness, anger, and restlessness,” Taylor writes, “and so I thought a little song reassuring them of God’s care at night, when they’re most vulnerable, might help their hearts. Our hope is that the melody might be simple enough for parents and children to be able to sing it when they go to bed.”
“See the Day” by Liz Vice: One of my favorite singers, Liz Vice, released a new single on April 10, called “See the Day.” Cowritten by her, Leslie Jordan, and Jonathan Day, it expresses hope for the coming day of the Lord, when justice will roll down like a mighty river, walls of division will crumble into dust, oppression will cease, and the whole world will be startled awake by love. “Precious Lord, come lead us on” to that reality.
NEW ALBUM: Easter 1 by Mac Meador: Mac Meador, a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, released a new EP of six songs for Eastertide this April, a sort of flip side to the Lent 1 EP he released in February. I really enjoyed them both (and the same goes for his Summer of Psalms from 2018). The Easter album strikes just the right note for me right now—of a quiet hope and joy that’s not absent of pain. The songs celebrate Christ the risen king while also expressing longing for the age to come, when the kingdom will be established in full. Lean into that promise!
You can stream and purchase Meador’s music on Bandcamp. (Note: To help musicians affected by COVID-19, Bandcamp is waiving its cut of all sales made on its site on May 1.) You might also want to check out his YouTube channel, where he posts additional songs. For the past four weeks he has been releasing “Quarantine Hymn Sing” lyric videos for his church, Grace + Peace Austin, where he serves as minister of music. (He also sets Bible memory verses to music for kids!)
EGG DANCING: “The Egg Dance: From Peasant Village to Political Caricature”: The Public Domain Review has compiled an amusing gallery of historical paintings, drawings, and prints that show the egg dance, a traditional Easter game with several variations, most associated with western European peasantry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
ART VIDEO:“500 Years of the Herrenberg Altarpiece”: I love seeing all the fun, creative resources being produced by art museums to help educate and engage the public in viewing art. Though I speak not a lick of German, this video from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart about Jörg (Jerg) Ratgeb’s Herrenberg Altarpiece made me laugh and had me hooked for its full five minutes. (I came across it when I was prepping a Holy Week blog post that features a different painting attributed to the same artist.) Released last October for the five hundredth anniversary of the altarpiece, the video, directed by Valentin Hennig and Oleg Kauz, animates some of the birds from the painted panels and has them narrate as the camera zooms in on details (one of them quite jarring and unseemly!). They then fly through the museum hall and over the town some twenty miles southwest to the church where the piece originally stood.
To add autogenerated subtitles, click the “CC” (closed captioning) button on the bottom of the video player, then select your language using the gear icon.
Painted in 1519, this double-winged altarpiece was commissioned by the Brethren of the Common Life, a Catholic pietist community, for the high altar of the collegiate church of Herrenberg in Swabia. Closed, it shows the apostles about to set out on their mission to spread the word of God. The first open view (interior panels closed, exterior wings folded out) reveals scenes from the passion of Christ, each panel with a primary scene in the foreground and a secondary scene in the background: the Last Supper with the Agony in the Garden, the Flagellation and Crowning with Thorns with the Ecce Homo (presentation to the crowd), the Crucifixion with the Carrying of the Cross and the Entombment, and the Resurrection with the Noli me tangere (appearance to Mary Magdalene). Completely opened (its feast-day configuration), the altarpiece shows scenes from the infancy of Christ, with reference also to the life of the Virgin Mary. It used to have a central Marian statue and predella figures, but these were likely destroyed when the Protestant Reformation came to Württemberg in 1534.
The artist had already died by this time—he was executed (drawn and quartered) for treason in 1526 for his role as one of the leaders of the German Peasants’ Rebellion.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’”
Jesus, name above all names
Beautiful Savior, glorious Lord
Emmanuel, God is with us
Blessed Redeemer, living Word
Jesus, loving Shepherd
Vine of the branches, Son of God
Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor
Lord of the universe
Light of the world
Praise him, Lord above all lords
King above all kings, God’s only Son
The Prince of Peace, who by his Spirit
Comes to live in us, Master and Friend
Smith’s arrangement uses the first verse, plus adds this bridge:
Oh holy Lord
Praise be to your name
Oh risen Son
Hear us as we sing
In 1318 Esayi Nch‘ets‘i (1260/65–1338), abbot of the Monastery of Gladzor in Armenia, commissioned three scribes to copy a Bible for the monastery, and T‘oros of Taron to illuminate it. The sumptuous illumination above, showing a genealogical tree sprouting from Jesse’s reclining body, serves as the frontispiece to the book of Psalms. Jesse was the father of King David and hence an ancestor of Jesus, who is enthroned at the end of the tree’s central branch, at the top of the composition. Various prophets with their scrolls are perched on the side branches. (We’ll revisit this iconography in the second week of Advent.)
According to Sirarpie Der Nersessian, this is the first example of a Tree of Jesse found in Armenian art; the inspiration for this image is derived from Western European manuscripts, where it was portrayed as early as the mid-twelfth century. However, T‘oros has modified the traditional Western European iconography: the top of the tree normally depicts the Virgin and Child, but in this example he has placed a youthful Christ in a mandorla holding a book in his left hand and blessing with his right. In the center of the trunk is the head of David, whereas in Western European traditions he is usually represented by a bust. In addition, T‘oros added an image of Samuel anointing the young David in the lower right, a scene not usually included with the Tree of Jesse. He also depicted the prophets and other figures seated cross-legged, a posture not commonly depicted in Western European manuscripts. (119)
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 29 (Reign of Christ), cycle C, click here.
ADVENT RESOURCES: Advent is just over a month away, and once again, SALT Project [previously] has produced some wonderful new devotional resources: (1) a customizable “Say Yes!” video for churches (see below), (2) a set of five unique “Say Yes” placements in three different color schemes, including black-and-white to be colored in by you and/or your family (note: these are sold as a digital download, so you will have to print and laminate them yourself), and (3) “Advent and Hygge: The Art of Coziness,” five devotional table tents, one for each week of Advent and a fifth for Christmas Eve/Day (promo video below).
“The Porter’s Gate is a sacred ecumenical arts collective reimagining and recreating worship that welcomes, reflects and impacts both the community and the church. The group was founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell with a mission to be a ‘porter’ for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. It started as a group of 50-plus songwriters, musicians, scholars, pastors and music industry professionals from a variety of worship traditions and cultural backgrounds who gathered to discuss challenges in the church and write songs in response.”
ARTICLE: “The Best Christian Albums of the 2010s”: Three of my choices for top Christian albums of the decade were selected for this Gospel Coalition article—and I got to write about them! Liz Vice (whom I saw in concert this year), Psallos, and Poor Bishop Hooper are creating excellent, exciting, soul-nourishing music that every Christian should know about; these albums of theirs that I’ve blurbed make a good entryway into their fuller body of work.
POETRY COLUMN: “Poetry Rx,”The Paris Review: Launched in March 2018, “Poetry Rx” is a column in which “readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match.” Some letter writers need hope or forgiveness; others, self-motivation or courage. Others want to feel love, or want to know how to express immense gratitude, or joy. Schwartz writes, “When I sit down to answer these letters, I often find myself reflecting on the purpose of my response. What should the poem offer? Challenge? Company? Direction? Language for an old feeling? A way toward new possibility?”
I’ve so appreciated not only the prescribed poetry but also the vulnerability of the letter writers, who present complex cocktails of feelings that show the multifariousness of being human. For example, the September 5 write-ins were: someone who is terrified of forgetting little pieces of a loved one who has died; a college student experiencing a growing apart from her childhood BFF and who is therefore lamenting the loss of “the magic that is young female friendship”; and a novelist who is hurt that her boyfriend and mother are not interested in reading her latest book (“I am destroyed that those who urged me to chase my dreams now cannot be bothered to witness them. . . . Do you have a poem for me that can ease the loneliness of being a writer? Of creating a world that those you love will not step into?”). How to be optimistic for your partner, how to work through feelings of restlessness, how to deal with a loved one’s addiction, how to manage the inevitable losses inherent to the medical profession, how to navigate the disorientation following a loss of faith, how to make last an ecstatic moment in nature, how to persevere as a schoolteacher who is pouring all her intellectual passion into a seeming void (bored students)—these are all situations for which poetic wisdom or solace is sought.
One woman wrote in looking for a poem “for a mother’s love.” (“My love for my daughter sometimes feels terrible and desperate and weighty with responsibility. But also sweet and tender and silly.”) Kay prescribed “Saying Our Names” by Marianne Murphy Zarzana, which begins,
Notice how just one syllable—
say Jack—can expand and become
the world, round and whole,
when it is a child’s name
being formed by a mother’s mouth.
For someone who is “unfamiliar with the geography of joy” and wants to learn how to navigate that space, Akbar recommends “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, which begins,
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
i pledge allegiance to my
homies to my mother’s
small & cool palms to
the gap between my brother’s
two front teeth & to
my grandmother’s good brown
hands good strong brown
hands gathering my bare feet
in her lap
Introducing the column, the “doctors” wrote,
No, I don’t think that poetry will save us. And yet, and yet . . . The “and yet” is what this column is for. And yet, maybe we can find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming. And yet, maybe we can find a poem you can escape inside of for a few minutes. And yet, maybe you just needed an excuse to share the vulnerable parts of yourself, and what better way to honor that courage than to offer you the poems that carry us through our own vulnerable times.
If you’re feeling something that you want to see reflected back to you in poetry or through which you want poetry to guide you, write in!
TV SERIES: Civilizations: Released last year and available on Netflix, Civilizations is a global art history series in nine episodes that “examine[s] the formative role of art and the creative imagination in the forging of humanity.” It expands on Kenneth Clark’s 1969 landmark series, Civilisation, which was criticized for covering only Western art history. Its three presenters are Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga.
As with any project of this scope, criticisms are bound to arise (several are mentioned, for example, in the mixed review from Hyperallergic), especially in how cultural interaction and exchange are discussed. But this focus on said interactions is, in my opinion, a hallmark of the series, and I think it was handled well overall. Rather than showing cultural production happening all over the globe in isolated pockets, it shows a mutual influencing in various directions. Episode 4, “Encounters,” is particularly dedicated to this theme, though it recurs throughout. Narrator Liev Schreiber opens that episode:
From the moment they meet, civilizations begin to influence one another’s art. During the 15th century, European sailors embarked on a new age of exploration. Cultures that previously were vast oceans apart now met for the first time. But before this became a story of conquest, plunder, and empire, there was a forgotten era of discovery. And for many, this was a golden age, when curiosity, mutual respect, and the exchange of goods and ideas were recorded in the art of countless human encounters.
So yes, you can see from this quote that the series does tend toward Westocentrism—but given that it was produced by Nutopia for PBS and BBC, I’d say that was unavoidable. This episode highlights, among many other artworks, Benin bronzes from what is today Nigeria (whose artists acquired their raw materials from Muslim merchants crossing the Sahara and, later, the Portuguese); namban screens from feudal Japan; the folk art associated with Day of the Dead in Mexico (a fusion of Aztec beliefs and Catholicism), as well as the Aztec influence on the gory religious art of the Spanish Baroque; and zoological and botanical illustrations, including Dürer’s famous rhinoceros woodcut (based on a written description of a rhino that was sent to Lisbon as a diplomatic gift from India) and the revolutionary drawings of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman from seventeenth-century Holland who traveled unaccompanied to Surinam in South America to document the plants and insects there.
In episode 5, “Renaissances,” I learned that at the same time Michelangelo was building St. Peter’s dome in Rome, the famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan was building Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, both men vying for world’s biggest dome, to eclipse the Hagia Sophia. Michelangelo was aware of Sinan’s building projects through diplomatic and commercial reports. The East was also aware of the West—the Ottoman sultans invited Michelangelo and Leonardo in the early 1500s to build bridges in Istanbul.
Religion, of course, is a major through line, and there’s a whole episode (number 3), “God and Art,” devoted to it.
I also really enjoyed episode 6, “Paradise on Earth,” about landscape art from around the world. It covers, among others, Chinese ink brush paintings, carpet weaving in Pakistan and Morocco, Jacob van Ruisdael and other Dutch landscape painters, J. M. W. Turner and Romanticism in England, the Hudson River School in America, Anselm Adams, and Hubble Space Telescope photography.
The whole series is beautifully shot and presented, and I recommend it. It enlarged my vision of the beauty of other cultures.
In a recent conversation, poet and novelist Joy Kogawa said, “We need to see each other’s eyes, and see each other through each other’s eyes.” Art, from all disciplines, can help us do that. Art can awaken our social conscience and breed empathy and understanding. It can serve as a vehicle for lament, a practice of voicing suffering before God. It can also widen our imaginations—that is, in part, our ability to think up creative solutions to problems both big and small. Here are just a few recent justice-oriented art projects that inspire me.
CLASSIC SONG REVISED: Earlier this month Liz Vice, Paul Zach, and Orlando Palmer took Woody Guthrie’s folk classic “This Land Is Your Land” and, gathering at Trinity Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, revised the lyrics and tone to project lament over some of America’s more troubling legacies. The lyrical turn happens in the fourth line: where we would expect “To the New York islands,” we get “To the Texas border,” turning our mind from the country’s beauty to its broken systems that prevent us from sharing abundance with our southern neighbors fleeing violence. The song continues to plot a path through various places of historical and present-day suffering in the US, the three stanzas compactly addressing immigration; slavery, the “New Jim Crow,” and police brutality against black people; and the forcible expulsion of Native Americans from their ancestral territories, as well as massacres and other forms of colonialist violence.
This land is your land
This land is my land
To the Texas border
Through the Juarez mountains
With the migrant caravans
This land was made for you and me
This land is your land
This land is my land
From the piers of Charleston
To the fields of cotton
From the crowded prisons
To the streets of Ferguson
This land was made for you and me
This land is your land
This land is my land
From the Jamestown landing
To Lakota Badlands
From the Trail of Tears to
This land was made for you and me
Most people don’t know it, but Guthrie actually wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a protest against the vast income inequalities in the US. Two of its original verses, the radical ones, were nixed when it came time to record (it was the McCarthy era, after all); these referenced breadlines and tall walls with “No Trespassing” signs. In its original form, the song celebrated America as a place of natural abundance—forests and streams and wheat fields under “endless skyways”—while lamenting the scarcity that many Americans experience. The refrain, therefore, was more loaded. Learn more about the song’s history at https://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land.
SEESAWS AT THE BORDER: On July 27, Oakland-based creative duo Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello installed three bright pink teeter-totters through the slats of a section of the US-Mexico border wall that separates the neighboring communities of Sunland Park, New Mexico and Colonia Anapra, Mexico. Citizens on both sides were invited to ride this playground essential with a cross-border partner—a whimsical way to engage the other. As the creators said, it enabled people to literally feel the weight of humanity on the other side, using the wall as a fulcrum. The installation lasted forty minutes before it was dismantled (without incident).
I love this idea of play as protest—teeter-tottering as an act of creative defiance. What was enacted July 27 at the wall was a theater of the absurd, something that Rael, an architect, is especially drawn to in his practice. He actually conceived of Teeter-Totter Wall ten years ago, publishing a conceptual drawing in the book Borderwall as Architecture (University of California Press, 2009), along with other outlandish design possibilities for turning the wall into something that brings together rather than divides—these include its use as a massive xylophone played with weapons of mass percussion, a bookshelf feature inside a binational library, and more. Through these humorous proposals, Rael “reimagin[es] design as both an undermining and reparative measure,” as Dr. Marilyn Gates put it.
In his 2018 TED Talk, Rael discusses how the wall, meant to separate, has actually served to unite people in some instances. He mentions, for example, games of Wall y Ball, a variation on volleyball that was established at the wall in 1979, and binational yoga classes. I’ve heard of the Eucharist being celebrated jointly through the slats, and picnics hosted—such as the one organized in Tecate by the French artist JR on October 8, 2017: families passed plates of food between the bars, and musicians on both sides played the same songs.
This picnic was the capstone of a month-long installation by JR featuring a monumental photograph of a Mexican toddler named Kikito, peering over the border wall into California from Tecate. (The photograph was held up with scaffolding.)
Shared play, shared food, shared music, shared sacrament—these are such breathtakingly beautiful countermeasures to separatism. The world needs more imaginative acts like these.
VIRTUAL REALITY INSTALLATION: This was in DC last year and I missed it! A VR experience directed by the multi-Academy-Award-winning Alejandro G. Iñárritu, known for the films Birdman, The Revenant, Biutiful, and Babel, and shot by (also multiple-award-winning) cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. “Carne y Arenais a six-and-a-half-minute solo experience that employs state-of-the-art technology to create a multi-narrative space with human characters. . . . Based on true accounts from Central American and Mexican refugees, [it] blurs and binds together the superficial lines between subject and bystander, allowing individuals to walk in a vast space and live a fragment of a refugee’s personal journey.”
This week Christianity Today published an article by theology and culture professor W. David O. Taylor, titled “Why Putting Christ Back in Christmas Is Not Enough.” I highly recommend it. In it Taylor discusses four fundamental influences on the way Christmas is celebrated in America, beginning with its illegalization by Puritans in the seventeenth century. One public notice warned citizens:
The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.
“So what happens,” muses Taylor,
when the Protestant church in the 17th century evacuates its worship of the celebration of Christ’s birth? A liturgical vacuum is created that non-ecclesial entities willingly fill. The government determines the legal shape of Christmas, the market shapes a society’s emotional desires and financial expectations about the holy day, the ideal family replaces the holy family, and the work of visual artists shape its imagination, while musicians and writers fill the empty space with their own stories about the “magic” of Christmas.
Taylor is not saying we can’t enjoy any of the secular trappings of Christmas (“the grace and goodness of God are not absent from these things”), only that we should recognize that the Christmas story told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is far more fantastical, more difficult and dangerous, more multicultural and multigenerational, and more relevant than the Christmas story America tells—including American civil religion.
This article was adapted from a lecture Taylor gave, as part of the Fuller Texas Lecture Series, to a gathering of scholars and artists at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Houston on October 20, which can be streamed via Facebook. (Starts at about 22:40.) The focus is on the critical role songwriters can play in reorienting our imaginations back toward the scriptural accounts of Christ’s birth, going beyond the sentimental and nostalgic into a more thorough habitation of the story in all its shades.
What if the narrative of Matthew and Luke were more determinative of our Christmas holidays than the narrative of Wall Street and primetime television? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to sing to God from the depths of their hearts—of their heart’s longings and wonderings, hopes and fears, certainties and doubtings, joys and melancholy yearnings? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to encounter the good news afresh—in a way that exceeded their sense of how deeply good, richly mysterious, and wonderfully paradoxical that news could in fact be? What if our Christmas songs offered an opportunity for our congregations to be attuned to each other—across the aisle as well as across denominational and cultural and geographic and linguistic lines—in a way that we never imagined possible?
This lecture was the capstone of the second workshop of the Christmas Songwriters Project, a new initiative sponsored by the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), and Duke Divinity School. Co-directing the project along with Taylor are Noel Snyder, a program manager at the CICW with a background in musicology, and Lester Ruth, a historian of Christian worship at Duke. The first workshop, held in March in Grand Rapids, Michigan, brought together twenty-four Christian songwriters from across the US who were specially invited to participate. Following its success, a second one took place October 18–19 in Houston with a new set of eighteen select songwriters, all local. The hope is to conduct future workshops, as soon as next fall, in Nashville, and later in New York City and Los Angeles. A website for the Christmas Songwriters Project is under development and is likely to launch this coming spring.
Over the course of two days, the Houston songwriters performed a close reading of the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke; studied Charles Wesley’s Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, a collection of eighteen of his hymns, published in 1745; and sought to get a sense of the musical aesthetics of today’s top fifteen Christmas carols. They asked themselves a double question: What does Christmas sound like? And what should Christmas sound like? (What new sounds are needed to re-sound the stories in Matthew and Luke?)
During these workshops, there was a heavy emphasis on collaboration. Several fine songs have resulted, which are in various phases of production. Six premiered in their earliest forms in the above video, interspersed with Taylor’s lecture.
One of the highlights is a reprise of the saccharine “Away in a Manger” that takes into account the Massacre of the Innocents and the resultant flight to Egypt of the Holy Family, thereby giving a broader view of the Christmas story, one that coheres better with the Matthean narrative, which ends with Rachel weeping. The clever twists on the original lyrics and the grayer tonality give a sense of the darkness into which Jesus came and also resonate with the experiences, hopes, and fears of many contemporary refugees.
[Update, November 8, 2019: Liz Vice has just released “Refugee King” as a single!]
Away from the manger they ran for their lives
The tiny boy Jesus a son they must hide
A dream came to Joseph, they fled in the night
And they ran and they ran and they ran
No stars in the sky but the Spirit of God
Led down into Egypt from Herod to hide
No place for his parents, no country or tribe
And they ran and they ran and they ran
Stay near me, Lord Jesus, when danger is nigh
And keep us from Herods and all of their lies
I love thee, Lord Jesus, the Refugee King
And we sing and we sing and we sing
And we sing and we sing and we sing
Another highlight is the song “Savior of Mankind,” an original setting of a hymn text by Charles Wesley, performed at around 51:00 in the lecture video. It captures a sense of the cosmic import of the Nativity, and of the overlap of heaven and earth that is the Christ. The line “’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze”—wow.
Whenever I gather with friends, I like to ask them what they’ve been reading, watching, and/or listening to lately (a lot of the media I consume comes from word-of-mouth recommendations), and if they’ve visited any interesting new places. In the spirit of sharing, here are some things on my list this month.
WHERE I’M GOING
“East Meets West: Women Icon Makers of Western Ukraine,” St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Chatham, Massachusetts: This week I’m road-tripping up to Cape Cod with my husband and two friends to see an art exhibition organized by John A. Kohan. On display through the end of the month are twenty-three Ukrainian Greek Catholic icons by four female artists from Lviv who are representative of the eastern European sacred art renaissance sparked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union: Ivanka Demchuk, Natalya Rusetska, Ulyana Tomkevych, and Lyuba Yatskiv. This Thursday, August 17, at 4:30 p.m., Kohan will be giving a gallery talk discussing the artists and their context. I’ve been following these women online for the past few years through Iconart and am thrilled to be able to see their work in person. I’m not sure which specific works will be there, but here are examples of two of the artists’ work:
Two-day arts lecture and performance series, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina: Thanks, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts! Celebrating the opening of a new art exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art, “The Patience to See: The Sights & Sounds of Carlo Dolci” on Thursday, August 31, will feature talks by Dr. Ben Quash and Dr. Chloe Reddaway, live period music by top-tier orchestral musicians, and the premiere of Blue Madonna, an original composition by Dr. Jeremy Begbie, inspired by a painting after Dolci. The other program events, taking place on Friday, September 1, are “Secretaries of Praise: Poetry, Song, and Theology” and “Home, Away, and Home Again: The Rhythm of the Gospel in Music.” My family lives in the Raleigh-Durham area, so it will be fun to spend time with them while also taking in some world-class art, music, and scholarship!
WHAT I’M READING
The Seven Deadly Sins: These seven small books (each about 128 pages) grew out of a 2002–2003 lecture series cosponsored by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press. Each is authored by a different prominent writer and approaches the assigned sin through the lenses of history, theology, philosophy, psychology, ethics, social criticism, popular culture, art, and/or literature. (Several include a full-color insert of images.) My favorite is Gluttony by Francine Prose, in part because it contained the most surprises. Prose points out that one can make the belly a god not only by habitually overeating but by being obsessive about nutrition, calories, body fat, and pants size—being a slave to the scale or to a point system. That’s not to say that dieting and exercise are inherently idolatrous, but . . . you have to read the book. It diagnoses our culture’s “schizophrenic attitude toward gluttony”—inundate us with snack ads, restaurants, and recipes and encourage us to take pleasure in eating, then tell us we’re eating too much and brand us with a scarlet O for Obese, promising that a gym membership and such-and-such health-food regimen will remove that shame. On both sides of our ambivalence, someone is making money.
I also really enjoyed Greed by Phyllis Tickle (she takes a similar approach as Prose, majoring on Christian theology, literature, and art, and is a brilliant writer) and Pride by Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor and ordained Baptist minister who focuses on racial pride (addresses why white pride is a vice but black pride is a virtue) and national pride (addresses the difference between patriotism, a virtue, and nationalism, a vice), describing very chillingly what it’s like to be black in America. Sloth is styled as a parody of the self-help genre and contains crude language, and I wasn’t too keen on it. I also wasn’t drawn in by Anger, which is written from a Buddhist perspective.
Acorn by Yoko Ono: Before her marriage to John Lennon, Yoko was a major figure in the underground art scene in New York City, and she continues to create today, mainly conceptual and performance art. On a whim, I bought her 2013 book Acorn on sale at the Hirshhorn—a sequel, of sorts, to her more famous Grapefruit—and have been enjoying reading and “performing” the “instructional poems,” or what I would call mindfulness exercises. Promoting better ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the planet, these exercises are given names like “Sky Piece” and “Sound Piece,” and each is accompanied by an amoeba-like dot drawing that gives readers “further brainwork,” Yoko says. (Click here to view sample page spreads, which include images.) My husband, Eric, thinks all the pieces are woo-woo—and some of them are. But others have deepened my wonder and praise, given my imagination some much-needed exercise, or convicted me of being a poor friend. Here are two:
“Earth Piece V”
Watch the sunset.
Feel the Earth moving.
“Connection Piece V”
How do you connect with people the most?
With the feeling of:
Make a list of people around you and see how it comes out.
Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the way you connect.
Don’t simplify the situation by just saying “I love/hate them all.”
WHAT I’M WATCHING
I just finished the first season of Rectify on Netflix, a drama about a man, Daniel Holden, who’s released from prison after spending nineteen years on Georgia’s death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. I’m hooked. A lot of it so far is Daniel learning how to use his freedom, especially how to give and receive human touch, and rediscovering the world—the weightlessness of goose down, for example, or the feeling of bare feet on carpet. I first heard about the show from the Televisionaries podcast, where Kutter Callaway, author of Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue, praised it for, among other things, giving high visibility to a Christian character who’s portrayed in a nuanced and noncondescending manner. We see evangelism, baptisms, people praying together, people owning their faith and struggling through it, asking hard questions. A second recommendation from film critic Nick Olson via Good Letters last month cinched my resolve to jump in. (Note to prospective viewers: The show is rated TV-14 for intense thematic elements, sexuality, and violence.)
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO
I’ve found that any album on the Deeper Well label is fantastic. Lately I’ve been listening to Wounded Healer (2012) by the Followers, who is Josh White, Eric Earley, and friends. The style is a mixture of soul, gospel, and vintage folk rock—what the group calls “neo-gospel.” The track below, “Enfold Me,” features the vocals of Liz Vice.