Roundup: Ecclesia, black gospel cover, Nat Turner, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “The Birth of Ecclesia”: On Sunday I wrote a piece for ArtWay on a thirteenth-century Bible moralisée illumination that pairs the creation of Eve out of the side of sleeping Adam with the birth of the church out of the side wound of the New Adam, Christ, our spouse, who “fell asleep” on the cross. The painting offers a great example of how art can do theology.

Birth of Ecclesia
Bible moralisèe: “The Creation of Eve” and “The Birth of Ecclesia,” fol. 2v (detail), ONB Han. Cod. 2554, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Made in Paris, 1225–49.

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POETRY LECTURE: “Believing in Poetry for a Secular Age: Michael Symmons Roberts and Mark Oakley,” October 5, 2017, 6:30 p.m., 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ: “If we live in a secular age, you wouldn’t know it from our poetry. Not only are some of the greatest poets of recent years overtly Christian, such as Geoffrey Hill and Les Murray, but many who are not remain drawn to and fascinated by ‘the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.’” To facilitate discussion on poetry’s spiritual power, the religion and society think tank Theos has organized an evening with the award-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts and arts writer and advocate Mark Oakley, who will draw on their most recent publications. General admission is £7.

Inspired by his hometown of Manchester, Roberts’s seventh poetry collection, Mancunia, released last month, has received critical acclaim. “Mancunian Miserere” is reprinted in full in the Guardian’s review, but here’s a taste: “As I walk west on Cross Street have mercy on me, O God, / . . . / for the wide berth I gave that man-cocoon asleep on the steps / of a new-closed bank where once I queued to find my balance.”

As canon chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of Mark Oakley’s responsibilities is to advance the church’s engagement with the arts. Last year he wrote The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, a series of reflections on twenty-nine poems that speak into the life of faith. Earlier books of his include The Collage of God, A Good Year, and compilations of readings for weddings and funerals.

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ALBUM: Grace by Lizz Wright: Lizz Wright’s sixth album, Grace, dropped on September 15 to rave reviews. “A sophisticated straddler of down-home blues, jazz, gospel, folk, southern pop and confessional singer-songwriter traditions,” Wright, with the help of album producer Joe Henry, chose nine covers from an array of sources and eras and cowrote the tenth track with Maia Sharp. My favorite is “Singing in My Soul,” written by Thomas Dorsey and popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe—about the steadfast joy that is ours in Christ.

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FILM: The Birth of a Nation (2016): My husband never learned about Nat Turner in school, he recently told me when the name came up at an exhibition opening. So when we got home we decided to watch Nate Parker’s biopic of Turner, an enslaved black preacher who in 1831 led a revolt against the slaveholding families of Southampton County, Virginia, killing about sixty white men, women, and children. It was a watershed moment in American history that spread fear throughout the South and resulted in the execution of fifty-six slaves and the lynching of over a hundred nonparticipants.

As do most cinematic retellings of history, The Birth of a Nation contains inaccuracies, and in its attempts to be a hero’s story, it lacks nuance. But it effectively shows how entrenched Turner was in scripture—he was literate—and how his growing understanding of God’s will for his people, combined with supernatural visions and other pressings of the Spirit, impelled him to act decisively on the side of justice. Because of my pacifist convictions, I cannot commend Turner’s violent methods . . . but I say this as a free white woman in the twenty-first century, whose privilege has protected me from the kind of desperation that was present on the antebellum plantations of the American South; were I in a state of constant oppression with no other way out, and forced to witness daily the abuse of my spouse, my children, my mother, and others I love, maybe my feelings would be different. I can still appreciate Turner’s ministry to his fellow slaves and his hunger and thirst for righteousness, as well as his internal wrestling with what was an extremely difficult situation.

On a related note, Nat Turner’s Bible is one of the collection highlights at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Worth a visit!

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: “This is what hope usually feels like”: In October 2015 I wrote an essay on George Frederic Watts’s allegorical painting Hope and how it pictures the posture that my family and I assumed after my Aunt Marjie’s cancer diagnosis. I am sad to report that Aunt Marjie passed away in July. We spent so many fun times together, traveling, eating, singing and dancing, our weeklong excursion through Italy, along with my mom, being a main highlight. Aunt Marjie’s boundless enthusiasm, positivity, selflessness, and sense of adventure will continue to inspire me. Tomorrow I’ll be flying out to Montana for a party in her honor, where I’ll be telling 150-plus friends and family members what she meant to me—and then dancing it up, just like she wanted! Here are a few favorite photos from my albums.

Making cookies with Aunt Marjie
Me and Aunt Marjie making cookies at Grandmom and Poppies’ house in Pleasantville, New York, in March 1991. When I was older Aunt Marjie told me that she had actually been in mourning that month over the loss of a child through miscarriage, and that this was the first time she had smiled in weeks. “It was a healing moment I have never forgotten,” she said.
Marjie, Vic, and Orion
Aunt Marjie was endearingly goofy, and completely unselfconscious about it. She livened up every outing and taught me not to care what other people think. Here we are with her son Orion, singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” on a boardwalk in 2002—deserted because it’s December!
Trevi Fountain
Mom, me, and Aunt Marjie throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. This photo has been framed on my bedroom dresser since I got back to the States from that semester abroad in 2009.
Aunt Marjie at Villa Jovis
This is a genuine reaction to I-don’t-remember-what inside Villa Jovis on Capri. Aunt Marjie’s ultra-expressiveness was one of her much-beloved traits, and archaeological sites always brought it out. (She had a PhD in the field . . . in addition to master’s degrees in geology and geophysics, anthropology, and social science!)
Aunt Marjie dancing
Aunt Marjie was always the first one out on the dance floor at weddings. Here she is at my wedding in 2010 with my cousins Alex and Danny. To this day, whenever I reference her to friends, they say, “I remember her! The dancing lady in the red dress!”

“Stephen Towns: A Migration” exhibit

On September 12 my husband and I attended a reception at the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College in Baltimore County, where mixed media artist Stephen Towns discussed the work in his solo show “A Migration.” The twenty-three paintings curated by Laura Amussen continue Towns’s exploration of the African diaspora and related issues, including slavery, resistance, and the loss of ancestral roots. He wants to tell history, he said, and to make beautiful images.

Stephen Towns
At the opening for “A Migration,” artist Stephen Towns talked about his new series, “Sunken,” inspired by a trip to Ghana in May. Photo via the artist.

Towns is not a Christian (he said he is ambivalent about religion), but he draws extensively on Christian iconography, most notably the halo, which he uses to denote the sanctity of black life. When I met him Tuesday I told him I can’t help but read his work through a Christian lens, and he said that’s great, that he welcomes diverse and particularized readings.

Joy Cometh in the Morning

The most conspicuous wall in the exhibition space is the blank one where blue-tape outlines demarcate the spots where six paintings used to hang before a controversy led to their removal. From the series “Joy Cometh in the Morning,” these absent works are head-and-shoulder portraits of unnamed participants in the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, which was inspired by his reading of scripture and his discernment of God’s voice. Each figure is noosed around the neck, harking to the method of their execution, but clenches the rope in a raised fist, staring straight ahead at the viewer with a look of defiance. While shadows of violence flare behind them, a butterfly alights on the knot of their rope, and a silent blue moon forms a halo around their head.

What Profit Is There in My Blood by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), What Profit Is There in My Blood?, 2016. Acrylic, oil, metal leaf, Bristol board, canvas, and paper on panel, 24 × 18 in. Photo via the artist.

Just prior to the show’s opening, an African American employee at the gallery complained that these paintings made her work environment feel abusive and uncomfortable. Out of sensitivity, Towns decided to take down the paintings and instead present photos of them in a binder for optional viewing. An artist’s statement is displayed next to the empty frames, which says, in part,

The original intent of the work was to honor the countless black men and women that fought against slavery, with the knowledge that their very fight may end their lives. . . . Though I am saddened to see the work go, I value Goucher’s Black employees’ concern. The intent of my work is to examine the breadth and complexity of American history, both good and bad. It is not to fetishize Black pain, nor to diminish it.

The overwhelming response to this action among viewers at Tuesday’s reception was frustration: commending Towns’s empathy but questioning whether self-censorship was the right way to go. Both white and black attendees spoke about how one of the powers of art is precisely to make us uncomfortable. Art awakens us to reality, even if that reality is painful. Removing offensive work prevents people from having meaningful encounters with it. Towns expressed his mixed feelings about not wanting to trigger trauma but also wanting to shine a light on hard truths. He said he was intentional about not making the images graphic.

To paraphrase his comments, his aim is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—and when his work has the reverse effect of afflicting the afflicted, he feels guilty.   Continue reading ““Stephen Towns: A Migration” exhibit”