Jesse and Leah Roberts, whose musical alias is Poor Bishop Hooper, adapted Psalm 25:3–7, 15 last year as part of their EveryPsalm project, an initiative to release one original psalm-based song every Wednesday. They are currently up to Psalm 100.
I’ve paired the song with a painting by turn-of-the-century American Impressionist Childe Hassam, of a rosy dusk on the outskirts of the central park in downtown Boston. The sun is descending behind the elm trees, the gaslights have been lit, and the ground is blanketed in snow. On Tremont Street on the left, trolley cars and carriages wheel busily past, while on the adjacent walkway a mother and her two young daughters have stopped to feed the birds.
Moodwise, the painting and song complement each other, the twinkling of Roberts’s piano corresponding to the play of pink light on Hassam’s canvas—and both bespeaking God’s goodness. I present the image here as an invitation to, like this family, find moments of quiet enjoyment and reflection amid the bustle of December.
The scene evokes warm memories for me, as my husband and I, then newlyweds, walked this path every Sunday to church for the five years we lived in Boston. Ten minutes from Park Street Station to the hotel where our congregation met, crunching through the snow in our insulated boots in wintertime, the natural sights and sounds of the Common preparing us for worship.
NEW PLAYLIST: October 2021 (Art & Theology): This month’s playlist includes a benediction from the book of Jude; a percussion-driven setting of Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun” by the Camaldolese monk Cyprian Consiglio; an Exodus-inspired song in Yorta Yorta, an indigenous Australian language, from the feature film The Sapphires; “Prodigal Son,” a little-known hymn by John Newton, from The Sacred Harp; a sixties gospel song by Shirley Ann Lee (famously covered by Liz Vice on her debut album); and closing out, in anticipation of All Saints’ Day on November 1, the jazz standard “When the Saints Go Marching In.” To save the playlist to your Spotify account, click the ellipsis and select “Add to Your Library.”
IN-PERSON LECTURE: “The Works of Art in the Work of the Church” by John Skillen, October 16, 2021, Crownsville, MD: The Eliot Society, an organization I work for, is hosting our first event in over a year and a half! It’s an art talk by Dr. John Skillen [previously], director of the Studio for Art, Faith & History in Orvieto, Italy. It will be at the home of two of our board members, so if you’re in the Washington–Baltimore metropolitan area two weekends from now, consider coming by! The event starts with hors d’oeuvres at 6:30 p.m., and an RSVP is requested.
In recent decades, a growing number of Christians—even those from church traditions formerly suspicious of the arts—are warming up to the idea that artworks can serve in the various practices of the life of faith, and not only in iconographic form as images of Jesus in worship. Scripturally sound and aesthetically sophisticated works of art can guide our prayer, help catechize our children, and shape the environments of our missional work. Many of us will welcome some pointers for putting art back in its place in the settings where we live and work.
To help us imagine possibilities, John Skillen will offer examples from a long period of Christian history when the arts were put to work in the collective life of the church in more places and in more ways than most of us nowadays can imagine. Not only churches but also hospitals, orphanages, the meeting rooms of parachurch organizations, baptisteries and bell towers, dining halls and cloisters in monasteries, town halls and civic fountains and public squares—all were places of serious decoration and design expected to be compatible with Christian faith.
No sphere of religious and civic life was off-limits for imagery able to instruct, to prompt memory, and to inspire emotion and action—the three functions of art most commonly cited during the Middle Ages to defend its value.
Artist Marc Padeu lives and works in Cameroon. Intriguingly, his monumental paintings – exploring tender and complex relationships between family, friends, lovers and working communities – often draw on Italian Baroque compositions and especially those of Caravaggio.
Marc Padeu joins Dr Jennifer Sliwka, specialist in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art. Her research explores how 17th-century painters developed innovative approaches to religious painting, imbuing their works with an immediacy, power, and dynamism.
Together, the speakers will take Padeu’s Le Souper a Penja and its relationship to Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus as a jumping-off point for conversation, exploring Padeu’s wider interest and understanding of historical works, his adoption and adaptation of the visual language of the Baroque and how these inform his evocations of contemporary life in Cameroon.
>> “In the Studio with Emmanuel Garibay,” November 11, 2021, 8:30 a.m. EST: The Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary is hosting a conversation with Filipino artist Emmanuel “Manny” Garibay, a social realist painter who served as the 2010–2011 OMSC artist in residence. “It is the richness of the poor that I am drawn to and which I am a part of, that I want to impart,” he says. His paintings often portray Jesus among the marginalized and dispossessed and critique the church’s “compliance with greed, corruption, and social inequality.” Garibay’s children Alee, Nina, and Bam, who are also accomplished artists, will be present for the conversation as well. For more on Garibay, see this Q&A from the OMSC and the Image journal essay “Recognizing the Stranger: The Art of Emmanuel Garibay” by Rod Pattenden.
EVERYPSALM: Over the next three years, indie-folk duo Poor Bishop Hooper (whom I blurbed here) will be writing and releasing one biblical psalm setting per week, sequentially from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150. And they are very graciously making all these songs available to download for free! They’ve already released the first three, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them. To sign up to receive a weekly download link in your inbox, visit https://www.everypsalm.com/. You may also want to consider giving to the project.
PHOTO SERIES: Un-Daily Bread by Gregg Segal: For his latest project, US-based photographer Gregg Segal has been photographing Venezuelan immigrants with the entirety of their belongings lying around them. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization that Segal is collaborating with, the number of people in Venezuela forced to leave their homes due to violence, insecurity, threats, and/or lack of essential services keeps increasing, with more than 4.6 million refugees and migrants from the country living around the world, mostly in South America. In the photograph below, you can see a young mother and her two children surrounded by a few changes of clothes, a doll, a baby bottle, medicine, diapers, arepas, and a Bible. The three traveled over six hundred miles from Maracaibo to Bogotá, hitching rides and catching buses.
Un-Daily Bread it is an offshoot of Segal’s Daily Bread series, in which he photographed images of kids from around the world surrounded by what they eat each day.
LITURGY: Impelled by the various antagonisms that have been on the rise both domestically and abroad, Aaron Niequist has written and compiled a ten-page Liturgy for Peacemakers, which includes a call to worship, two songs, a confession of sin and assurance of pardon, scripture readings, and prayers, including one minute of holy space each to pray for a global enemy, a local enemy, and a personal enemy. The liturgy, which focuses on shaping us to be instruments of God’s peace in the world, is free for you to use in your living rooms and/or churches, and to adapt in any way you wish.
EXHIBITION: Andy Warhol: Revelation, October 20, 2019–February 16, 2020, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh: Ever since reading Jane Daggett Dillenberger’s illuminating book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol(1998), I’ve been interested to explore more deeply the Byzantine Catholicism of Andy Warhol and how it influenced his art. (I was surprised to learn, for example, that although he had a complicated relationship with Christianity, Warhol regularly attended Mass, wore a cross around his neck, carried a pocket missal and rosary, and prayed daily with his mother in Old Slavonic over the forty years he lived with her.) A pioneer of the pop art movement best known for his silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol also made giant cross paintings as well as screen prints of famous Renaissance religious paintings in full or in detail (by Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci)—especially The Last Supper, his last and largest series. Jesus is surely a part of American pop culture, so Warhol’s use of such imagery is not all that unusual in light of his larger oeuvre. But is there anything more to this choice of subject?
I’ll be driving to Pittsburgh next weekend, where Warhol grew up, to see an exhibition of his religious works curated by José Carlos Diaz from the Andy Warhol Museum’s permanent collection. I’ll also be attending a lecture at the museum given by Jonathan A. Anderson, titled “Religion in an Age of Mass Media: Andy Warhol’s Catholicism.” (It’s January 25 at 6 p.m. Update: Watch the lecture on YouTube.) In and around Pittsburgh is also where Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) spent most of his life, so I’ll be visiting a few key spots related to him as well!
EXHIBITION: Scott Avett: INVISIBLE, October 12, 2019–February 2, 2020, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh: “Internationally recognized as co-founder of the band The Avett Brothers, Scott Avett has been a working artist, focusing on painting and printmaking, since he earned a BFA in studio art from East Carolina University in 2000. But until now this art-making part of his life has been a secret and a more solitary creative pursuit in comparison to his life as a musician, singer, and songwriter. This solo exhibition features Avett’s large-scale oil paintings. These are psychologically charged and emotionally intense portraits focused on his family and himself—often intimate, vulnerable, and sometimes uncomfortably truthful portrayals. Like his songs, Avett’s paintings speak to universal issues of spirituality and struggle, love and loss, heartache and joy, as well as more personal stories of career, family, and living in the South.”
As an Avett Brothers fan, I made it a point to see this exhibition in December when I was visiting family for Christmas, and actually, it exceeded my expectations. It was endearing to see portraits of Avett’s three children tumbling around, swinging, engaged in deep thought at the dinner table, playacting as monsters, wailing—and he and his wife in the middle of it all, experiencing both the joys and stresses of parenting. My favorite pieces were probably the companion paintings Motherhood and Fatherhood, which show the messiness of those callings.
Fatherhood is one of several self-portraits in the show. The one that’s most prominently displayed, right at the entrance, is Black Mouse, White Mouse, which references Leo Tolstoy’s personal essay “A Confession,” about an existential crisis. In it Tolstoy recounts a fable of a man who falls into a well with a dragon at the bottom. On his way down he grabs hold of a branch growing out of the wall, but it’s being nibbled by two mice, and his fall to death is imminent. This scenario is representative of where we all find ourselves: finite beings in an infinite world, dangling over the abyss. There are four possible ways to respond, says Tolstoy: ignorance, epicureanism, suicide, or hanging on to life. He thinks suicide the most logical but says he lacks the nerve to carry it out.
Tolstoy then launches into metaphysical musings, grappling with the question of God’s existence, when suddenly, he has an epiphany that “God is Life,” and that “I live, really live, only when I feel Him and seek Him.” He continues, “I returned to the belief in that Will which produced me and desires something of me. I returned to the belief that the chief and only aim of my life is to be better, i.e. to live in accord with that Will. And I returned . . . to a belief in God . . .”
Avett’s spirituality isn’t overt in any of the paintings, but it’s been interesting to hear him open up more about that aspect of himself in artist talks and interviews. In an October talk, for example, he said, “I’m a true believer that every single one of us is a beloved son or daughter of God, period. I know that for certain. And because of that, this [pointing to himself] isn’t the only bright shining person in this room. It’s insane how true that is. . . . I’ve just always lived like that—like someone was watching. It was God the whole time; he was right there with me and in me, the whole time. When I was younger it was so much easier to access that. And now growing older, it’s about opening up to access that again.”
SONG: “Offertory” by John Ness Beck, performed by Future:Past: Micah 6:8 has, for me, functioned as what some would call a “life verse”: a guiding principle that I return to again and again to reorient myself to the divine will. I long to be the kind of person the verse describes: one who does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God. Thanks to Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship, I’ve just been made aware of a beautiful musical setting of this passage, which happens to be one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for February 2 this year.
“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The music was composed in the second half of the twentieth century by John Ness Beck and was adapted for TTBB (tenor-tenor-bass-bass) by Craig Courtney—performed here a cappella by Josh Adams, Davis Gibson, Jon Kok, and Matthew Reiskytl of the Christian music and media ministry Future:Past. To purchase sheet music for “Offertory” (available in SATB, SSA, and TTBB voicings, with keyboard and optional string quartet), click here.
ADVENT RESOURCES: Advent is just over a month away, and once again, SALT Project [previously] has produced some wonderful new devotional resources: (1) a customizable “Say Yes!” video for churches (see below), (2) a set of five unique “Say Yes” placements in three different color schemes, including black-and-white to be colored in by you and/or your family (note: these are sold as a digital download, so you will have to print and laminate them yourself), and (3) “Advent and Hygge: The Art of Coziness,” five devotional table tents, one for each week of Advent and a fifth for Christmas Eve/Day (promo video below).
“The Porter’s Gate is a sacred ecumenical arts collective reimagining and recreating worship that welcomes, reflects and impacts both the community and the church. The group was founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell with a mission to be a ‘porter’ for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. It started as a group of 50-plus songwriters, musicians, scholars, pastors and music industry professionals from a variety of worship traditions and cultural backgrounds who gathered to discuss challenges in the church and write songs in response.”
ARTICLE: “The Best Christian Albums of the 2010s”: Three of my choices for top Christian albums of the decade were selected for this Gospel Coalition article—and I got to write about them! Liz Vice (whom I saw in concert this year), Psallos, and Poor Bishop Hooper are creating excellent, exciting, soul-nourishing music that every Christian should know about; these albums of theirs that I’ve blurbed make a good entryway into their fuller body of work.
POETRY COLUMN: “Poetry Rx,”The Paris Review: Launched in March 2018, “Poetry Rx” is a column in which “readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match.” Some letter writers need hope or forgiveness; others, self-motivation or courage. Others want to feel love, or want to know how to express immense gratitude, or joy. Schwartz writes, “When I sit down to answer these letters, I often find myself reflecting on the purpose of my response. What should the poem offer? Challenge? Company? Direction? Language for an old feeling? A way toward new possibility?”
I’ve so appreciated not only the prescribed poetry but also the vulnerability of the letter writers, who present complex cocktails of feelings that show the multifariousness of being human. For example, the September 5 write-ins were: someone who is terrified of forgetting little pieces of a loved one who has died; a college student experiencing a growing apart from her childhood BFF and who is therefore lamenting the loss of “the magic that is young female friendship”; and a novelist who is hurt that her boyfriend and mother are not interested in reading her latest book (“I am destroyed that those who urged me to chase my dreams now cannot be bothered to witness them. . . . Do you have a poem for me that can ease the loneliness of being a writer? Of creating a world that those you love will not step into?”). How to be optimistic for your partner, how to work through feelings of restlessness, how to deal with a loved one’s addiction, how to manage the inevitable losses inherent to the medical profession, how to navigate the disorientation following a loss of faith, how to make last an ecstatic moment in nature, how to persevere as a schoolteacher who is pouring all her intellectual passion into a seeming void (bored students)—these are all situations for which poetic wisdom or solace is sought.
One woman wrote in looking for a poem “for a mother’s love.” (“My love for my daughter sometimes feels terrible and desperate and weighty with responsibility. But also sweet and tender and silly.”) Kay prescribed “Saying Our Names” by Marianne Murphy Zarzana, which begins,
Notice how just one syllable—
say Jack—can expand and become
the world, round and whole,
when it is a child’s name
being formed by a mother’s mouth.
For someone who is “unfamiliar with the geography of joy” and wants to learn how to navigate that space, Akbar recommends “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, which begins,
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
i pledge allegiance to my
homies to my mother’s
small & cool palms to
the gap between my brother’s
two front teeth & to
my grandmother’s good brown
hands good strong brown
hands gathering my bare feet
in her lap
Introducing the column, the “doctors” wrote,
No, I don’t think that poetry will save us. And yet, and yet . . . The “and yet” is what this column is for. And yet, maybe we can find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming. And yet, maybe we can find a poem you can escape inside of for a few minutes. And yet, maybe you just needed an excuse to share the vulnerable parts of yourself, and what better way to honor that courage than to offer you the poems that carry us through our own vulnerable times.
If you’re feeling something that you want to see reflected back to you in poetry or through which you want poetry to guide you, write in!
TV SERIES: Civilizations: Released last year and available on Netflix, Civilizations is a global art history series in nine episodes that “examine[s] the formative role of art and the creative imagination in the forging of humanity.” It expands on Kenneth Clark’s 1969 landmark series, Civilisation, which was criticized for covering only Western art history. Its three presenters are Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga.
As with any project of this scope, criticisms are bound to arise (several are mentioned, for example, in the mixed review from Hyperallergic), especially in how cultural interaction and exchange are discussed. But this focus on said interactions is, in my opinion, a hallmark of the series, and I think it was handled well overall. Rather than showing cultural production happening all over the globe in isolated pockets, it shows a mutual influencing in various directions. Episode 4, “Encounters,” is particularly dedicated to this theme, though it recurs throughout. Narrator Liev Schreiber opens that episode:
From the moment they meet, civilizations begin to influence one another’s art. During the 15th century, European sailors embarked on a new age of exploration. Cultures that previously were vast oceans apart now met for the first time. But before this became a story of conquest, plunder, and empire, there was a forgotten era of discovery. And for many, this was a golden age, when curiosity, mutual respect, and the exchange of goods and ideas were recorded in the art of countless human encounters.
So yes, you can see from this quote that the series does tend toward Westocentrism—but given that it was produced by Nutopia for PBS and BBC, I’d say that was unavoidable. This episode highlights, among many other artworks, Benin bronzes from what is today Nigeria (whose artists acquired their raw materials from Muslim merchants crossing the Sahara and, later, the Portuguese); namban screens from feudal Japan; the folk art associated with Day of the Dead in Mexico (a fusion of Aztec beliefs and Catholicism), as well as the Aztec influence on the gory religious art of the Spanish Baroque; and zoological and botanical illustrations, including Dürer’s famous rhinoceros woodcut (based on a written description of a rhino that was sent to Lisbon as a diplomatic gift from India) and the revolutionary drawings of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman from seventeenth-century Holland who traveled unaccompanied to Surinam in South America to document the plants and insects there.
In episode 5, “Renaissances,” I learned that at the same time Michelangelo was building St. Peter’s dome in Rome, the famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan was building Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, both men vying for world’s biggest dome, to eclipse the Hagia Sophia. Michelangelo was aware of Sinan’s building projects through diplomatic and commercial reports. The East was also aware of the West—the Ottoman sultans invited Michelangelo and Leonardo in the early 1500s to build bridges in Istanbul.
Religion, of course, is a major through line, and there’s a whole episode (number 3), “God and Art,” devoted to it.
I also really enjoyed episode 6, “Paradise on Earth,” about landscape art from around the world. It covers, among others, Chinese ink brush paintings, carpet weaving in Pakistan and Morocco, Jacob van Ruisdael and other Dutch landscape painters, J. M. W. Turner and Romanticism in England, the Hudson River School in America, Anselm Adams, and Hubble Space Telescope photography.
The whole series is beautifully shot and presented, and I recommend it. It enlarged my vision of the beauty of other cultures.