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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were You There? by Luke A. Powery

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill

Typically when scholars interpret African American art, they do so through the primary lens of racial identity, often glossing over overt Christian themes, expressions of religious identity. Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press, 2017), edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill, seeks to redress that dearth by examining the Christian content, including theological significance, of works by fourteen African American artists who came to maturity between the Civil War and the civil rights era: Mary Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Malvin Gray Johnson, Archibald Motley Jr., William H. Johnson, James Richmond Barthé, Allan Rohan Crite, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, Horace Pippin, James VanDerZee, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. Many of these artists were themselves devout Christians, working out of internalized religious convictions and not merely outward tradition or market expectations.

Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American ArtThe essayists certainly take race into account as a factor in the works discussed, but not the only factor; political, socioeconomic, and biographical circumstances are also considered. Christianity, however, as the title suggests, is given pride of place in the selection and examination of the fifty-five images reproduced in the book.

One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented. As the book shows, African American art is no monolith, and neither is African American Christianity. While there is so-called primitive art and visionary art created by self-taught individuals with crayons, cardboard, or salvaged limestone, there is also neo-classical sculpture, as well as other academically informed works that tend toward impressionism or expressionism. Among the pages are rough-hewn stone sculptures, abstract watercolors, naturalistic oil paintings, and portrait photographs. While there are many depictions of Christ as black, there are also, per tradition, white Christs, and even a Middle Eastern one. What was most surprising to me was to see examples of art by African Americans from high-church traditions, like Catholicism and Anglicanism, who distinguish themselves from low-church Baptists, Pentecostals, and Holiness Christians. The editors are to the applauded for resisting the urge to perpetuate a narrow vision of “Negro art” in line with what the artists’ contemporary critics and viewers principally sought.

Another hallmark of the book is the rigorous formal evaluation and content analysis of specific artworks that make up the bulk of almost every essay, encouraging readers to look deeply. Biographical information about the artists is well integrated and does not overwhelm the focus on the works themselves. Given this image-forward approach, I must say, I’m disappointed that a handful of works, for which color photographs should be available, are reproduced in black and white—for example, Motley’s Tongues (Holy Rollers), Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, and Lawrence’s Sermon II and Sermon VII. Luckily these can be found online, but seeing as the entire book is printed in full color with glossy pages, I wonder why color photographs of these were not sought or obtained.

Lastly, I really appreciate the connections between artists made possible by the bringing together of these essays—some made explicitly by the authors, others implied. Douglas and Lawrence both dignified the art of black preaching by visualizing sermons. Crite and Johnson visualized the spirituals, but using very different approaches. Edmondson and Morgan were both motivated by a belief that they were divinely ordained to create by supernatural visions. Episcopal Crite and Catholic Motley intertwined class and religion in their works.

This book is essential reading for anyone in the fields of Christianity and the arts or African American studies. As one belonging to the former category, I see these artworks as part of not only art history but Christian history, and as worthy of being studied by Christians as any theological treatise, written scripture commentary, saint’s biography, or church trend. These artworks teach theology; they encapsulate hopes and fears; they comment on public issues; they expose sin; they lead us in celebration and in lament; they help us to re-member the works of Christ, and invite us into communion with him; they tell us who we are and from whence we’ve come; they cast a biblically grounded vision for the future.

What follows is a brief summary of each chapter.

In chapter 1, Kirsten Pai Buick traces the network of patronage that supported Catholic sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, as well as the multiple geographic moves she made to further her career: from Boston to Rome (1865), Rome to Paris (1893), and Paris to London (1901). Because many of Lewis’s religious works have been lost, little attention is given in this chapter to the art itself; the only art illustration is her conventional-looking Bust of Christ (1870), mentioned cursorily in the text.

In chapter 2, James Romaine demonstrates the shift in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings from the visual clarity favored by nineteenth-century academic art to a mood of personalized spiritual mystery favored by the twentieth-century symbolists. He examines four paintings as representative of this move—The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896), Nicodemus (1899), The Two Disciples at the Tomb (ca. 1906), and The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water (ca. 1907)—revealing how each explores the complex exchange between vision and belief.

Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), Nicodemus, 1899. Oil on canvas, 85.5 × 100.3 cm (33.7 × 39.5 in.). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

In chapter 3, Caroline Goeser examines the seven gouaches Aaron Douglas made in response to James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. These images align biblical narrative with modern black experience to tell socially resonant stories. In its attention to the African Simon of Cyrene, for example, The Crucifixion (1927) promotes an “Ethiopianist” narrative, influenced by the late nineteenth-century biblical scholar Edward W. Blyden. Simon looms large as the most prominent figure, heaving Christ’s heavy cross over his shoulders, heroized by his vigorous stride and his active gaze toward God’s light above. Bearing similarities to that of the trudging African American migrant in Douglas’s On de No’thern Road (1926), this pose subtly associates the Great Migration north with the burdensome road to Calvary.

Crucifixion by Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), The Crucifixion, 1927. Oil on Masonite, 121.9 × 91.4 cm (48 × 36 in.) Private collection.

Up Golgotha’s rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.
And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,
And Simon bore the cross.

In chapter 4, Jacqueline Francis examines the dozen or so paintings Malvin Gray Johnson created between 1927 and 1934, the final years of his life, as visual interpretations of Negro spirituals. Modernist in style, these paintings, she says, united old and new and high and popular expressions, helping to revive and elevate this genre of black folk music that saw diminishing audiences during the Great Depression. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1928), a night scene painted in thick, dark hues and mounted in a gold lunette frame reminiscent of medieval icons, received the most critical attention in Johnson’s time, eliciting comparisons to Albert Pinkham Ryder. The artist said,

I have tried to show the escape of emotion which the plantation slaves felt after being held down all day by the grind of labor and the consciousness of being bound out. Set free from their tasks by the end of the day and the darkness, they have gone from their cabin to the river’s edge and are calling upon their God for the freedom for which they long. (qtd. 56)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by Malvin Gray Johnson
Malvin Gray Johnson (American, 1896–1934), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1928. Oil on canvas, 124.5 × 73.5 cm (49 × 29 in.). Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City.

Continue reading “Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill”

The “Nothing” that won our salvation

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Matthew 27:11–14

Consider the incredible self-control Jesus exercises in his appearance before Pilate. He has just come from his religious trial, where he was passed from Annas to Caiaphas to the Sanhedrin and found guilty of blasphemy. But the Sanhedrin does not have the authority to issue death sentences, so they turn Jesus over to the civil authorities, claiming he’s a threat to Roman power, guilty of sedition.

Both charges are false, and yet Jesus gives no defense against either one. Why? Why not prove that he truly is the Son of God, and that he’s no insurrectionist? Why not clear his name? In John’s account of the trial before Pilate (18:33–38), Jesus is more verbal; he explains, “My kingdom is not of this world.” But still, he offers no hard evidence, calls no witnesses (they’ve scattered anyway). He essentially sits back and lets the judgment fall.

English poet and clergyman Richard Crashaw (ca. 1613–1649) was inspired by Christ’s silence under pressure to pen an epigrammatic verse unpacking its significance. As a teenager attending Charterhouse School in London, he and his fellow students were required to write epigrams based on the epistle and Gospel readings from the day’s chapel services, and it’s a practice Crashaw continued throughout his life. The following was originally published in Steps to the Temple: Sacred Poems, with Other Delights of the Muses in 1646.

“Matthew 27” by Richard Crashaw

And he answered them nothing.

O Mighty Nothing! unto thee,
Nothing, we owe all things that be.
God spake once when he all things made,
He sav’d all when he Nothing said.
The world was made of Nothing then;
’Tis made by Nothing now again.

In “Matthew 27,” Crashaw apostrophizes the word Nothing. (Apostrophe is a poetic device in which the speaker addresses an absent person, an abstract idea, or a thing; Paul does it, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”) He plays on its opposite: everything. By no thing comes all things.   Continue reading “The “Nothing” that won our salvation”