Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands— O prosper the work of our hands!
God’s eternity and human frailty. These are the central themes of Psalm 90, commonly read on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Today many Christians will be receiving the sign of the cross in ash on their foreheads—a symbol of death and repentance. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel,” the pastor pronounces as he or she smears the ash (made from burnt palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday) on young and old alike.
For a Protestant defense of Ash Wednesday, see “To Ash or Not to Ash” by the Rev. Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy. He explores the biblical symbolism of the ritual, its history, and its importance for Christian formation.
LOOK: We Shake with Joy, We Shake with Grief by Meena Matocha
Austin-based artist Meena Matocha uses charcoal, ashes, soil, and wax to create figurative paintings that explore the tensions between joy and grief, life and death, and the eternal and temporal. The title of this featured painting of hers comes from the poem “We Shake with Joy” by Mary Oliver, reproduced here in full:
We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body. [source]
The exhibition Meena Matocha: Into the Bright Sadness opens this Friday, March 4, at Christ Church of Austin with a reception and gallery talk and will run through April 15. “Bright sadness” is how the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann, in his influential book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (1969), translates the concept of charmolypê that John Climacus develops in his Ladder of Divine Ascent in relation to “holy compunction.” “Bright sadness . . . is the true message and gift of Lent,” Schmemann writes. “The sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home.” Alternative translations of this compound noun that permeates the Lenten season are “bitter joy,” “joyful mourning,” “joy-making mourning,” or, as Archimandrite Lazarus Moore has it, “blessed joy-grief.”
In their mood and materiality, Matocha’s paintings capture well the themes of Ash Wednesday and the season it inaugurates. Follow her on Instagram @meenamatochaart and on Facebook.
LISTEN: “From the Dust” by Paul Zach and Kate Bluett, 2021 | Released as a single February 25, 2022
From the dust we came To the dust we shall return God everlasting, age unto age the same We are a moment, then like a breath we fade
From the dust we came To the dust we shall return God everlasting, we are cut down as grass Seeds in the morning, and by the night we pass
O Lord, have mercy O Lord, have mercy O Lord, have mercy
Based on Genesis 3:19 and Psalm 90:2–6, “From the Dust” is a sober acknowledgment of the mortality that unites us all, and a plea that God would be merciful to us, forgiving our foolish ways and setting us back on the path of wisdom.
>>Black Art: In the Absence of Light (HBO): Directed by Sam Pollard, this ninety-minute documentary is an excellent introduction to the work of some of the foremost Black visual artists working in the US today. It opens by discussing the landmark 1976 exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, the first comprehensive survey of such. Curated by art historian and artist David C. Driskell (the main voice of the documentary), the exhibition, which opened at LACMA, showed the public that there is a lineage and a history, starting with early Black American artists like Joshua Johnson, Robert S. Duncanson, Edward Bannister and extending forward to artists like Romare Bearden, Charles White, Alma Thomas, and others. The exhibition inspired a whole new generation of Black artists, many of whom were encountering the work of their artistic forebears in person for the first time.
A range of contemporary Black artists are interviewed: Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Jordan Casteel, Faith Ringgold, Richard Mayhew, Radcliffe Bailey, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Hank Willis Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, Betye Saar. So are several Black curators, art historians, and collectors, like Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, “the focal point of African American cultural and artistic production” since 1968 and “one of the most important institutions that we have,” as Weems says in the film. Another interviewee throughout is Maurice Berger, an art historian (who is white) and longtime voice against racism in the art world.
Both Driskell and Berger died of coronavirus while the film was in postproduction, and it is dedicated to their memory, as a postscript reads.
You can watch it for free, regardless of HBO subscription status, through March 17. HBO has also published a curriculum and art-making activities as supplements, which you can find at the link.
>> The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (PBS): Written, hosted, and co-produced by Henry Louis Gates Jr., this two-part docuseries premiered February 16. It’s impossible to separate Black religion, politics, and culture, so the documentary weaves them all together over the course of four hours, showing how for centuries the Black church was the epicenter of Black life and exploring its role in the twenty-first century. I think it does a great job overall of avoiding an overly simplistic narrative.
The Black Church “traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, all the way down to its bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power. The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage.”
You can watch online for free; just download the PBS Video app, or visit YouTube: episode 1; episode 2.
SONG: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” performed by Victory Boyd: WOW. Such a beautiful interpretation of this classic hymn. Victory writes, “I’m continually inspired by this song and how it was written in the 1800’s by 2 brothers both African Americans that saw and experienced great affliction in this Country… yet they still had hope. They still had a song of freedom on their lips and they encouraged EVERY voice to join in and sing alongside them this song of freedom. Recorded LIVE at The Secret Place.” [HT: SALT Project]
“As a Catholic priest and son of Italian immigrants, I bear the religious and ethnic burden of ancestral crimes perpetrated on the first inhabitants of the Americas,” Giuliani once said. “Many have been converted to Christianity, but in doing so some find it difficult to retain their indigenous culture. My intent, therefore, in depicting Christian saints as Native Americans is to honor them and to acknowledge their original spiritual presence on this land. It is this original Native American spirituality that I attempt to celebrate in rendering the beauty and excellence of their craft as well as the dignity of their persons.”
ALBUM: Hymns by Paul Zach: Released February 5, this new album by Paul Zach comprises eight of his favorite hymns plus two originals, with vocal contributions by Liz Vice, Page CXVI, Leslie Jordan, Taylor Leonhardt, and The Sing Team. There has been a lot of experimentation in the hymns genre among recording artists, but what Zach gives us is something quiet and pared-down, which is exactly what I like. And as I’ve said before, Zach’s voice is so wonderfully expressive. He’s a joy to listen to and to sing along with. Below is the opening track, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” followed by Zach’s gorgeous setting of Psalm 23. The album is available on iTunes and Spotify.
Wednesday, February 17, is the start of Lent, a forty-day season of penitence and renewal. It’s not so much about making resolutions as it is about drawing near to God and encountering his grace afresh—at the foot of the cross.
That closeness entails confronting, confessing, and repenting of sin—sins of commission and omission. (The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that we sin “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”) It’s an uncomfortable process, but one that grows us, makes us healthy. It makes our relationships and communities healthier too. Jesus’s grace is not just warm fuzzies in the hearts of private individuals but, rather, works itself out in the world.
As a companion for the Lenten journey, I’ve curated a Spotify playlist of songs for the season, a mix of prayers and praises to the Triune God whose strength avails to meet us in our weakness and our need. Some are invitational, others are penitential, and others are celebratory. Along with images of dust, blood, wilderness, and death, there are themes of victory and rising, healing and wholeness, rivers that cleanse, rivers that quench thirst, agricultural metaphors of planting and growth, calls to lay down one’s burden and to rest in the Savior’s love. There are songs of pursuing and of being pursued (us calling out to God, God calling out to us), for as we deepen our desire for God, we come to realize how deep God’s desire is for us.
Lord, purge our eyes to see Within the seed a tree, Within the glowing egg a bird, Within the shroud a butterfly:
Till taught by such, we see Beyond all creatures Thee; And hearken for Thy tender word, And hear it, “Fear not: it is I.”
I chose this as the introductory song because, first, it expresses how out of “death” or dormancy can come great life and beauty—as with the buried seed that, once germinated, brings forth lushness. This is one of the prime metaphors of Lent, and this song is a supplication that we would have eyes to see it and, what’s more, participate in it (see Rom. 6). Second, I like how it reminds us of the tenderness and approachability of Jesus. Some people enter Lent with a sense of dread, fearing that their sins are too great, or that they will never measure up to some set standard of piety. But Jesus tells us not to be afraid. His love and mercy know no bounds. He wants to set us free from our illusions of self-sufficiency and for us to rely on his Spirit to work good things in and through us.
Let me share just a handful of other song highlights.
“Simple Gifts” is a one-verse Shaker hymn from 1848, performed here by the amazing female trio Mountain Man (Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Amelia Randall Meath, and Molly Erin Sarle). The Shakers, a Christian sect, were known for their use of dance during worship, and “bowing,” “bending,” and “turning” are dance instructions as much as they are instructions for life. Simplicity is another hallmark of the Shakers, a virtue and a discipline that Lent summons us to.
Another Lenten virtue is silence. In 2018 Paul Zach released the EPGod Is the Friend of Silence, whose title track is inspired by a Mother Teresa quote: “We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.”
There are many originals from the past decade on the playlist, but there are also a lot of classic hymns: “Amazing Grace” (to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”), “Softly and Tenderly” (intriguingly reharmonized by the Wilderness of Manitoba), “I Am Thine, O Lord,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “Grace That Is Greater,” “Nothing but the Blood,” “Near the Cross,” “Just as I Am,” “Jesus Paid It All,” “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” “Where He Leads Me.” And a beautiful adaptation of “I Surrender All” by Chanda Rule, who revised the first verse to this:
O Beloved, I surrender All my heart I freely give Ever open, ever trusting Breathing with my Source, I live
Also included are several settings of the ancient liturgical prayer Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”)—by Hildegard of Bingen, Josquin des Prez, Isaac Wardell, and the monks of Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal (sung in Wolof). Plus the fourteenth-century prayer known as the Anima Christi, with music composed by jazz master Mary Lou Williams using a 6/8 rhythm pattern and a bass clarinet.
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification Body of Christ, be my salvation Blood of Christ, fill my veins Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains
Passion of Christ, my comfort be O good Jesus, listen to me Lord, have mercy on me
. . .
The entire Lent album by Liturgical Folk is inspired by specific Lenten readings from the Book of Common Prayer. My favorite song is “Willing Minds,” based loosely on the collect (succinct prayer) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent:
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The melismatic phrases (in which one syllable is stretched out across multiple successive notes) underscore the flightiness of the human will, our inconstancy, our lack of rootedness.
“Create in Me” by Terry Talbot, covered by The Acappella Company in the video below, is a prayer that’s pieced together from various verses of scripture, starting with Psalm 51:10:
Other favorites, which I’ve featured on the blog before, are Leon Bridges’s “River” [previously] and “Hallelujah” by MaMuse [previously]. “I’m gonna let myself be lifted,” the latter asserts.
As much as Lent is about dying to sin, it’s also about rising with Christ, so resurrection is present throughout—in biblical narrative songs about Jonah, Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, and Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, for example (foretastes of Easter), but also in songs of personal testimony and aspiration. The theme is especially punctuated in the final few selections. “Where All New Life Begins” by John Lucas seeks to define faith, landing on “Faith is laying your body down / And believing new life will come up from the ground.” Carrie Newcomer’s “Lean in Toward the Light” opens with a similar image of buried seeds, which stretch out underneath the cold winter earth as they prepare to sprout (that is, resurrect), their growth enabled by the light; “keep practicing resurrection!” exclaims the second stanza.
The last two songs are centered on Romans 8. “The Spirit of Life” by Psallos is a contemporary setting of verses 1–17 and part of a larger project. For the final, “sending forth” song I’ve chosen “Conquerors” by Hiram Ring, which is quieter, less anthemic, than the previous one, but its chorus rings of Romans 8:37 and makes for a powerful closing:
We are more than conquerors Heading out into this world Freed from chains and strengthened now ’Cause his love is all around
This is just a sampling of the 150 songs on Art & Theology’s Lent playlist, which I will probably build on indefinitely. Later in the season I plan to publish a different list specifically for Holy Week.
To add the playlist to your account, open the link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”
Playlist cover art: Vincent van Gogh, Rain (detail), Saint-Rémy, 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art
I recently started accepting donations to help support the running of this blog ministry. If the Lent playlist has value to you, please consider leaving a gift of $5 through PayPal. If you have already given, thank you. https://www.paypal.me/artandtheology
PANEL DISCUSSION: “Religious Art,” organized by the Forum for Philosophy: I posted about this live online event a month ago, and now that it’s passed, I want to share the video recording. Theologian Ben Quash (King’s College, London), curator Lieke Wijnia (Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht), and art historian Mehreen Chida-Razvi (Khalili Collections, London) discuss the relationship between art and religion, how art can function within religious practice, how to exhibit religious art in a museum, and artworks as sites of conversation across religious traditions.
In reference to Hadzi-Vasileva’s canopy of pig’s caul fat, Quash says that challenge or provocation can be a meaningful thing to happen in a religious context:
Works that ambush you are also religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward of your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does, it seems to me. It should actually want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should—it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are. So there’s a role for these sorts of artworks within religion as well as outside it.
Chida-Razvi shares slides of Islamic architectural spaces, devotional objects, and manuscript illuminations, including a Mughal painting that exemplifies the interfaith dialogue going on at the court of Akbar in Lahore, and Wijnia shares her experience curating objects people pray with for museum display and (forthcoming) an exhibition on Mary Magdalene. Such great content!
“He Comes,” words by Kate Bluett, music by Paul Zach: A lovely new Advent hymn, performed here by Paul Zach.
“The Heavens Shake” by Reindeer Tribe:Reindeer Tribe is a group of friends based in Los Angeles who get together each year to make a live Christmas album, a mix of originals and traditional, sometimes retuned, carols. They bring their voices, instruments, and arrangements and jam together for a long weekend in a big living room. (COVID-19 put the kibosh on this year’s gathering.) This original song, perfect for Advent, is on their 2014 album, A Great Light. “For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth . . .” (Haggai 2:6).
ARTICLE: “We don’t need to be afraid of the Christmas tree’s pagan roots” by Damian Costello, America: Dr. Damian Costello specializes in the intersection of Catholic theology, Indigenous spiritual traditions, and colonial history. In this article he considers how the Christmas tree pictures Christ as the new Yggdrasil (the giant ash tree at the center of the Norse cosmos), and the spiritual character of nature. The second half—about “the hidden agency of trees”—stretches my categories for sure, and I wonder if it’s a bit overwrought, but I’m intrigued by the links Costello draws between the Psalms, Anishinaabe spirituality, and the theology of Catholic saint John Henry Newman. The article reminds me of Luci Shaw’s poem “Perfect Christmas Tree.”
FILM: The Nativity (2010), written and directed by Tony Jordan: I’m always skeptical of film adaptations of the Bible because so many are poorly done. But I gave this four-part BBC miniseries (streaming on Amazon Prime) a shot, and, other than a really cheesy moment during the birthing scene, I thought it was quite good! Writer-director Tony Jordan is not a Christian but approaches the story with the reverent curiosity of a dramatist. He said he never connected with the nativity story until he worked on this project and started to see the very real humans beneath the auras tradition has given the “holy couple”—he saw their earthiness and complexity and began to imagine their emotional lives, especially their reactions to the disruptions they encountered. He said the relationship between Mary and Joseph was key to him. Many storytellers assume that because the marriage was arranged (or because, according to apocryphal sources, Joseph was an old man), there was no passion in their relationship, that they were bound together more by duty than by love, but Jordan, without overly romanticizing, imagines otherwise. The warmth between Mary and Joseph in the first half, which they have to work to regain after news of Mary’s pregnancy hits Joseph like a ton of bricks, is a hallmark of the movie.
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is probably my favorite Mary I’ve seen onscreen. (I also like Andrew Buchan [Broadchurch] as Joseph.) Jordan says most people see Mary as “a one-dimensional character with a halo round her head,” but actually, “she’s not saccharine. Just a nice kid—real but fallible.” He shows her as virtuous but not a goody-goody, fun-loving and confused and scared and courageous all at once, stepping into her new role by faith without seeing the full picture and even discipling Joseph into that faith. Maslany plays the part brilliantly, endearingly. The film addresses the isolation Mary felt, being rejected not only by her fiancé at first but also by the synagogue leadership and disbelieved, too, by the community she had grown up in. I’ve seen many actors portray Mary as detached, transcending all her difficult circumstances with calm, unshaken resolve. This Mary, by contrast, experiences hurt and fear and yet endures, which, I suspect, is closer to the historical reality. This in no way undermines her faith.
I was delighted by the Annunciation scene, where Gabriel comes to Mary as an ordinary man, much like the angels who visited Abraham generations earlier. He is not wearing ermine or carrying a scepter or standing on a rock above Mary with a booming voice and a heavenly glow. He’s simply a stranger who startles her, even more so when he relays his news. He speaks gently, colloquially. The moment of conception is portrayed as sudden and visceral; Mary feels Light enter her and reacts with a sort of joyful shock.
The trailer and posters, I will say, make the film seem pretty conventional. It does follow some conventions, but it’s also fresh, and while it has some flaws, I think it’s a very worthy use of two hours—it brings this ancient story to life in compelling ways.
DANCE:“Ave Maria”:Queensland Ballet dancers Victor Estévez and Mia Heathcote perform a pas de deux (ballet duet) to the Schubert melody that today is most associated with the prayer “Ave Maria,” which begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” These are the words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when he came to announce that she would bear in her body the Son of God. Though I can’t say what this duo had in mind when they choreographed the piece, I can’t help but think, given the music choice, of the Annunciation—the Divine coming to dance with humanity, to partner with her for the redemption of the world. The dancing starts thirty-five seconds in.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Embodied Joy, Serious Joy: Making Room in the Body and Life for New Creation” by Alexandra Davison: I shared a visual meditation by this culture care leader just last week. In this devotional piece based on Luke 1:41–55, Davison discusses two abstract paintings from Louise Henderson’s The Twelve Months series. In October, “Henderson has a cropped representation of a pregnant woman, her belly bright and fruitful as a melon, shines with what Henderson describes from her own pregnancy as ‘bubbles of life circulating in the womb.’ She magnifies joy from its tiniest beginnings both seen and unseen in the mother and the child.” Reflecting on this ebullient image in conjunction with her own pregnancy experience and Mary’s, Davison ends by quoting an adaptation of the Magnificat by songwriter Marcus Walton.
VIDEO INSTALLATION:Mary! by Arent Weevers: One of the primary images or metaphors for the season of Advent is pregnancy—the pregnant Mary awaiting the birth of Jesus, her belly swelling a little more each day, and a world heavy with expectancy, at the threshold of (re)birth. In 2009, media artist and theologian Arent Weevers [previously] created a gorgeous video installation titled Mary!. “Standing in the middle, a heavily pregnant young woman. Her hair partly covers her naked body to her ankles. She peers past you, with no expression on her face. From underneath, a gusty wind begins to blow, wafting her hair slowly upwards into the air. Suddenly, the woman bends slightly forward, her left arm in front of her abdomen, and grimaces painfully. Losing her balance, she falls sideways out of the frame until only black remains.” You can preview the video here. (Because of the nudity, there will be a content warning you have to accept before proceeding.)
Weevers’s art aims to express the paradoxical nature of the human body—its vulnerability and its strength—and in her role as Mary, the actor in this video exemplifies both so well. Gloriously gravid and standing tall at first, the woman looks into the distance and sees the future suffering of her son. She clasps her belly protectively in response, hunching forward as the painful knowledge of his destiny shoots through her.
MAGNIFICAT SERMON (and sketch): “The Love That We Are Made For” by Bob Henry: Bob Henry is an American Quaker pastor who often sketches in preparation for and in response to sermons. In this sermon he delivered December 11, 2016, at Silverton Friends Church in Oregon, he reflects on the oldest and most radical Advent hymn: Mary’s Magnificat. We are so used to thinking of Mary as quiet and demure, but Henry imagines her as “a strong woman with arms flaring, fists raised, wild bodily movements, beads of sweat forming on her brow, and a strong voice throwing down these words from Luke 1:46–55.”
This characterization is expressed in his drawing, which shows a Black Mary, full of faith and fire, surrounded by the words of Joy Cowley’s “Modern Magnificat.” He says the women of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, where he used to teach Bible, embody for him Mary’s bold declaration of justice, freedom, and hope in today’s world. He challenges us to sing Mary’s song in our own political climates.
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.)
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.
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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.
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.”
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Christians are called to be “aching visionaries,” writes Nicholas Wolterstorff in the classic Lament for a Son—much like the Hebrew prophets, who by the Spirit’s enlightening were able to see through the pain of this present era into a future where all things are made new, where sorrow is undone and Love reigns. Blessed are those who cling to this vision, and who actively live into it here and now, not ignoring hurt but acknowledging its wrongness (that’s what lament is: to say, “This is not right”) and co-laboring with God to heal it. For this task we are equipped with God’s Spirit.
The Christian fixation on heaven is sometimes perceived by outsiders as escapist, as opioid. Claiming its promise does console, it’s true. It does give us power to push through pain and guards us against despair. But what it absolutely does not allow is retreat from reality. On the contrary, it helps us to inhabit reality more fully. Talk of heaven doesn’t numb us to the world—or at least it shouldn’t. It makes us hyperaware, especially of history’s path. History is going somewhere! It has a telos, and it has manifestly not arrived there yet. Until then, we ache. We labor. We hope. Rather than having an idling effect, seeing the goal actually motivates us to live presently in tighter line with God’s values, because we see how beautiful a world they usher in. We know that we cannot ourselves create the final fullness that Christ will institute when he returns, nor can we remove the pall of evil (again, that’s only within Christ’s power), but we can certainly live as citizens of God’s kingdom and thus practitioners of the gospel in all its transformative goodness.
Brothers Philip and Paul Zach (The Silver Pages) are aching visionaries who write songs and sing. “When Your Kingdom Comes,” performed with Mona Reeves, helps us to see with greater clarity the glorious future that’s in store for this earth. One day when we come home to it, it will be heaven. The New Jerusalem will descend, and we’ll be wed eternally to its king.
To download the album version of the song (which has more pronounced percussion) along with five other Silver Pages tracks, go to NoiseTrade. It’s free in exchange for your email address.
Update, 9/21/20: Paul Zach posted a solo acoustic version of the song on his Instagram today.
And here he is singing the song with his friend Patrick Bagaza from Rwanda, who translated the song into Swahili:
[After the Ring is destroyed]
“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, from The Return of the King
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 23, cycle A, click here.