The Christmas Songwriters Project

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.

Christmas Songwriters Project
Professor Lester Ruth leads a Christmas Songwriters Project session on October 18 in which participants are tasked with reworking Mary’s Magnificat into a congregational hymn that highlights the upside-down kingdom of God.

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 (religious) 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.

“Away from the Manger: The Refugee King” – Words and music by Liz Vice, Wen Reagan, Bruce Benedict, Greg Scheer, and Lester Ruth | Performed by Liz Vice (lead vocals) and Hannah Glavor (guitar and backing vocals)

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 (×2)

Alleluia (×5)

(Related post: “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”)

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.

“Savior of Mankind”Words by Charles Wesley, 1745 | Music by Luke Brawner, Joe Deegan, Rebekah Maddux El-Hakam, and Paul Yoon, 2018

Let angels and archangels sing
The Son of God, Immanuel’s Name
Adore with us our newborn king
And still the joyful news proclaim

All heav’n and earth be ever joined
To praise the Savior of mankind (×2)

The everlasting God comes down
To walk with the sons of men
Without his majesty or crown
The great Invisible is seen

Of all his dazzling glories shorn
The everlasting God is born (×2)

Angels, see the infant’s face
With rapt’rous awe the Godhead own
’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze
And cast your crowns before his throne

Now he on his footstool lies
For he built both earth and skies (×2)

By him into existence brought
You sang the all-creating Word
You heard him call our world from naught
Again, in honor of your Lord

You morning stars, your hymns employ
And shout, you sons of God, for joy (×2)

Roundup: Ukrainian sacred art, seven deadly sins, Yoko, Rectify, and more

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:

Adam Gives Names to the Animals by Lyuba Yatskiv
Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–), Adam Gives Names to the Animals, 2015. Acrylic and gold leaf on gessoed board, 80 × 50 cm.
The Baptism of Christ by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), The Baptism of Christ, 2015. Mixed media on board on canvas, 30 × 40 cm.

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!

The Blue Madonna by Carlo Dolci
 Onorio Marinari (Italian, 1627–1715), The Blue Madonna (after Carlo Dolci), 17th century. Oil on canvas. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

WHAT I’M READING

Seven Deadly Sins box set

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 image insert.) 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 can’t be done without idolatry, 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

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:
Curiosity
Interest
Forgiveness
Adoration
Competition
Envy
Fear
Control
Detachment
Rejection

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.