Psalm 91: Fifteen musical versions

Psalm 91 (Psalm 90 in the Vulgate) is a psalm of protection, commonly invoked in times of hardship or before embarking on a journey. It conveys the sheltering presence of God, using the metaphor, tender and intimate, of a mother bird who cares for her fledglings, shading them under her wings and lifting them up out of danger. This image recurs throughout the Psalter and the Bible at large (see Pss. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7; Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11).

Pelton, Agnes_The Primal Wing
Agnes Pelton (American, 1881–1961), The Primal Wing, 1933. Oil on canvas, 25 × 24 in. San Diego Museum of Art, California. Source: Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, p. 113.

Let me quote the psalm in full, using the King James Version, whose poetic quality cannot be beat:

1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.

4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;

6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.

7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.

8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.

9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;

10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.

11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.

13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.

15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.

16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.

The righteous will be protected, sings the psalmist, from sickness and attack, whether by arrow or by wild animal. Because of the psalm’s specific mention of plagues, or “deadly disease,” it became especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, we know from experience that some of these statements cannot be taken at face value. Physical harm does befall those who love God. Believers were among the “ten thousand” (and more) felled by the most recent raging pestilence. It’s wrong to conclude that this was a result of their lack of faith.

Biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer clarifies that “the promise [in Psalm 91] is not security from but security in.” That God looks after us is an absolute principle, but the Bible makes clear that no one is immune from suffering. Still, we can trust in God’s grace and strength and ultimate deliverance, and entreat him for specific protections. Bodily salvation won’t come in full until the new heavens and the new earth are ushered in, but we are kept spiritually in the shelter of our loving God.

That doesn’t mean Psalm 91 is a lie; it is poetry, and poetic language is often not meant to be literal. The assurances are still worth praying. God does often intervene on our behalf.

The ancient Jewish community at Qumran near the Dead Sea, through whom the oldest manuscript fragments of the Hebrew Bible come to us, referred to Psalm 91 as a “psalm against demons,” and it is thought to have been used by that community in exorcisms. Jewish midrash interprets many of the listed threats as veiled language for demons, and there is Christian precedent for that interpretation as well. In Luke 10:17, Jesus’s followers marvel that “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!,” to which Jesus affirms that yes, “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you”—language very similar to that in Psalm 91.

In the Late Antique era, both Jews and Christians wore the words of Psalm 91 on amulets, to attain or simply feel God’s guarding power. In the church it is traditionally sung or recited during Compline services and on the first Sunday of Lent (in Matthew 4:6 the devil manipulatively quotes verse 11 in his temptation of Christ in the desert).

This psalm has also influenced popular culture, as from it comes the concept of guardian angels (vv. 11–12).

Below I have selected fifteen musical settings or adaptations of Psalm 91 from diverse sources, including homophonic and polyphonic choral works, songs in indie folk and soul styles, a Puerto Rican hymn, a Nepali bhajan, and more.

For each I have embedded either a YouTube video or Bandcamp track, and if a Spotify link exists, I’ve included it at the end of the description. If you cannot see these music players in your email client or RSS feed reader, open the post in your browser.

This is a curation, not a collation, meaning that I’ve intentionally picked these songs from among hundreds of options, for both excellence and variety. I tried to limit the list to ten and just couldn’t, but I thought twenty would be too overwhelming, so I compromised by choosing fifteen with five honorable mentions. I’ve added almost all twenty to a YouTube playlist (the Sister Sinjin song isn’t available on that platform), if you prefer to listen that way.

1. Gregorian chant performed by Harpa Dei: Born in Germany and raised in Ecuador, siblings Nikolai, Lucía, Marie-Elisée, and Mirjana Gerstner form the sacred vocal quartet Harpa Dei. Here they sing Psalm 91 in Latin in the medieval plainchant tradition. Subtitles are provided in Spanish and English.

For a plainchant in English, albeit of verses 4–5 only, see here.

2. “Psalm 91” by Victory Boyd: This is probably my favorite of all the selections. Victory Boyd is one of seven musical siblings, and before she started her solo career, she was a member of the vocal-harmony sibling act Infinity Song. Her voice is gorgeous, as is this simple musical setting she wrote, conveying both the vulnerability and confidence present in the psalm.

3. “Psalm 91” by Poor Bishop Hooper: Every Wednesday since January 1, 2020, married couple Jesse and Leah Roberts, who record music under the alias Poor Bishop Hooper, have been releasing a new psalm-based song for free download as part of their EveryPsalm project. Handling them consecutively, they have just eight left to go! They made a live video for “Psalm 91,” which shows them playing their own piano four hands accompaniment. [Spotify]

4. “Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi” (He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High) by Josquin des Prez, adapted by Laurel MacDonald: Josquin des Prez (pronounced “joss-can day pray”) was a highly influential Franco-Flemish composer of the High Renaissance. In 1542 he wrote a setting of Psalm 91[90]:1–8 in Latin for twenty-four voices (SATB ×6)—that is, six distinct soprano parts, six distinct alto parts, etc.

Inspired by this choral motet, in 2007 composer and video artist Laurel MacDonald worked with longtime associate John Oswald to create qui, a sound installation of twenty-nine voices singing an adaptation of des Prez’s “Qui habitat” in twenty-nine languages over twenty-nine speakers, for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. MacDonald revisited the project in 2010, creating the short video “XXIX” (below) with twenty-one of the original qui singers, each singing in the language of his or her personal heritage. They weave a complex tapestry with interlocking threads of Krio, Spanish, Korean, Hungarian, Hindi, Greek, Finnish, English, French, Italian, Latin, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Georgian, Russian, English, Tamil, Hebrew, Swahili, Japanese, and Arabic—a multilingual declaration of God’s protective power.

To hear Josquin des Prez’s motet as originally conceived, click here.

5. “Your Wings” by Lauren Daigle: Lauren Daigle is one of the most popular CCM (contemporary Christian music) artists of the past decade. Two-time-Grammy-winning and with two platinum records, she is often compared to Adele in terms of her vocal style—soulful, rich, in a husky register. In April 2020 she released on YouTube a stripped-down, “social distancing” version of her Psalm 91–based song (written with Jason Ingram and Paul Mabury) from Look Up Child, with just her and a piano. You can get a sense of her strong stage presence from the video; here she hits the melody with both her voice and her body—bouncy on the verses, smooth on the refrain! [Spotify (studio version)]

6. “Whomsoever Dwells” by Sinéad O’Connor: “Whomsoever Dwells,” written with Ron Tomlinson, is one of five adaptations of Hebrew Bible passages that appears on Sinéad O’Connor’s stellar 2007 double album, Theology. (Thanks to Art & Theology reader Koen Desmecht for introducing me to this!) The acoustic performance below—from November 8, 2006, at The Sugar Club in Dublin—was released on disc one, subtitled “The Dublin Sessions,” and features guitars, fiddle, harp, and tin whistle; the same song, arranged for a pop-rock band and recorded in a London studio, is on disc two. (I much prefer the acoustic version.)

Theology is an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war and to provoke thought,” O’Connor said. It is very “personal” and “emotional.”

7. “El que habita al abrigo de Dios” (Those Who Dwell in the Shelter of God) by Luz Ester Ríos de Cuna and Rafael Cuna: This 1943 hymn from Puerto Rico is a versification of Psalm 91 in Spanish by Luz Ester Ríos de Cuna, with music by her husband, Rafael Cuna (1907–1995). I learned of it from the bilingual hymnal Santo Santo Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios (Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God). Here it’s performed by musicians from Iglesia Central del Movimiento Misionero Mundial en el Perú (Central Church of the World Missionary Movement in Peru) in Lima. Their names are not given.

8. “Denn er hat seinen Engeln befohlen” (For he shall give his angels charge), MWV B 53 by Felix Mendelssohn: Early Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, a Reformed Christian with Jewish ancestry, wrote this setting of Psalm 91:11–12 in German in 1844 for Berlin Cathedral, where he was serving as Generalmusikdirektor (royal composer of church music). It is for an unaccompanied eight-part choir, but he later reused it with orchestral accompaniment as movement 7 of his oratorio Elijah.

9. “No Harm Befall You (Psalm 91)” by Sister Sinjin: Released on the 2022 compilation album Joy to the World (Psalms 90–​106) from Cardiphonia Music, “No Harm Befall You” was written by Elizabeth Duffy and is sung by her and Kaitlyn Ferry, who make up the Indianapolis folk duo Sister Sinjin. Their harmonies are a hallmark of their music.

10. “Psalm 91” by Sharyn: Sharyn (pronounced “sha-REEN”) is a Ugandan-born, London-based gospel/R&B singer-songwriter “whose mission is to spread the gospel through adventurous, original, and engaging music,” she says. She wrote “Psalm 91” during the height of the coronavirus, as that scripture passage is one she would read again and again as a source of comfort amid the uncertainty. “This song is an affirmation and a reminder of who God is, what He can do, will do and has done,” she says. “Never forget that God is faithful and his promises are the greatest form of protection we can ever have. His promises are your armor and shield.” The recording features Calibleubird on backing vocals. [Spotify]

11. “Shelter Me” by Buddy Miller: In a 2010 episode of PBS’s Soundstage, country-rock artist Buddy Miller performed a set with other Americana greats Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin, including this original song (written with Julie Miller) from his 2004 album Universal United House of Prayer. “Shelter Me” is about not being scared in the face of disaster or war, for God is our hiding place. The song could apply to Psalm 57 just as well, which addresses the same themes as Psalm 91 and even uses the same language of sheltering under the wings of the Almighty. [Spotify (studio version)]

12. “Underneath the Shadow” by Tom Wuest: This is one of twelve quiet, sparsely instrumented songs that Tom Wuest recorded with his wife, Karen, which were written as their two young sons fell asleep. They all “draw their lyrics from the psalms and from our family’s joy in and meditation upon the good creation of God,” he says. Fitting indeed for meditation, “Underneath the Shadow” comprises just three simple lines: “Underneath the shadow of Your wings / We dwell underneath the shadow of Your wings / Hidden close to Thee, we find rest.” [Spotify]

13. “Mero Saransthaan (My Shelter)” by Suraj Khadka: A Nepali adaptation of Psalm 91, this bhajan (devotional song) from 2021 features traditional instruments from the Indian subcontinent: sarangi (vertical fiddle), bansuri (bamboo flute), and dholak, madal, and tabla (drums). Thanks to Dr. Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship for alerting me to this one.

14. “Lang en gelukkig (Psalm 91)” (Long and Happy) by Psalmen voor Nu: Founded in 2002, Psalmen voor Nu (Psalms for Now) was a project in the Netherlands to set all 149 psalms (they combined Psalms 42 and 43) in Dutch to music, a task they completed in 2014 with the release of their eleventh album. Seeking “to introduce as many people as possible to the beauty and power of the psalms,” the team comprised some twenty theologians, poets, and composers, plus a band. They wanted the texts to be understandable and the melodies modern and singable. This particular song from the project was written by Liesbeth Goedbloed (words) and Roeland Smith (music) and released in 2013. It has a smoky nightclub vibe. I’ve copied the lyrics below. [Spotify]

[1] Als je bij de Allerhoogste woont, mag je in zijn schaduw slapen.
Als je zegt: ‘De Hoogste is mijn huis. mijn God, ik kan op u vertrouwen’,
dan mag je in zijn schaduw slapen.

[2] Het is God die jou bevrijdt van de dood, de zwarte dood.
Hij dekt je met zijn vleugels toe. Ga maar slapen. Je bent moe.
Zijn trouw zal jou beschermen. Dan kun je slapen, dan kun je slapen.
God waakt over jou. Dan kun je slapen.

[3] Voor de angst die elke avond komt, hoef je niet meer bang te wezen,
ook al spookt de zwarte dood weer rond, al sloopt een ziekte alle mensen,
jij hoeft niet meer bang te wezen.

[4] Ook al komt de dood dichtbij, vallen duizend mensen om,
toch zul jij altijd veilig zijn wat de rest ook overkomt
en slechte mensen krijgen, durf je te kijken, durf je te kijken?
hun verdiende loon. Durf je te kijken?

[5] Jij zei ooit: ‘Mijn God, u bent mijn huis. Geen ziekte komt de drempel over.’
Die ellende gaat je deur voorbij, sinds je dicht bij God ging wonen.
Geen ziekte komt je drempel over.

[6] Zijn engelen staan klaar. Ze dragen je op handen.
God stuurt ze met je mee.
Je stoot je nergens aan. De leeuw, de draak, de adder
jij loopt over ze heen.

[7] Want je houdt van mij, zegt God, en die liefde maakt je vrij.
Ik dek je met mijn vleugels toe, omdat jij weet wie ik ben.
Je kent mijn naam en roept me. Ik kom je redden, ik kom je redden.
En ik antwoord jou: ik kom je redden.

[8] In de zwartste nacht blijft ik bij jou. Ik red je en ik geef je leven.
Deze keer is alle eer voor jou. Ik zeg: Ik ben voor jou een zegen!
Voor jou een lang gelukkig leven!

[Outro] Lang en gelukkig, lang zul je leven, lang zul je leven,
lang en gelukkig, lang zul je le ven! [source]

15. “In Him I Will Trust” by Sherri Youngward: Covering Psalm 91:1–5, this is one of sixteen psalm-passage settings by Bay Area singer-songwriter Sherri Youngward. For more, see her two Scripture Songs albums.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Your Wings” by Kate Bluett and Keiko Ying; “Scapulis suis” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina; “Psalm 91” by John Michael Talbot; “Under Your Wings” by Freddie Fardon (feat. Darla Baltazar); “Psalm 91” by Jonathan Ogden

If you appreciated this post and would like to see more like it in the future, please consider donating to my work. If you do, leave a note telling me which psalm you’d like me to do next!

Roundup: Upcoming Texas events (music of the Psalms, art seeking understanding) and more

UPCOMING EVENTS:

>> “The Music of the Psalms in Church History” by W. David O. Taylor, Christ Church, Austin, Texas, October 1, 2022: “For two thousand years, Christians have found the Psalter to be an invaluable resource for worship and prayer. And, like the original psalmists, Christians have felt compelled and inspired to set the text of the psalms to music, of all sorts: from a cappella to choral, from folk to rock, from reggae to gospel, and more. In collaboration with local musicians, David Taylor, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, will explore how Christians in different periods of church history have sung the psalms within corporate worship,” spanning the apostolic, medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, modern, and contemporary eras.

Psalms (David Taylor)
Left: Icon of the Holy Prophet-King David. Right: Celtic Cross with Bible Page, encaustic by Phaedra Jean Taylor.

A choir will perform several chants (Hebrew, Byzantine, Gregorian) and a motet, and then attendees will be led in a handful of Psalm-based songs, from a hymn of German origin to an African American spiritual to CCM classics. Along the way Taylor will provide historical context and trace a narrative.

Sponsored by the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary, the event is free, but registration is required and filling up; reserve your spot here. It will be recorded and eventually posted on the Fuller Studio YouTube channel (whether there will be a livestream is still TBD).

>> Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: Art Seeking Understanding, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, October 26–28, 2022: Every fall the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University organizes a symposium around a given topic, and this year’s topic is the arts. Registration is still open! The standard cost is $250, or $125 for students. “The notion of art seeking understanding (ars quaerens intellectum) invites association with the notion of faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). Just as faith is a gift of grace that grows toward deeper knowledge, so it seems that art is a gift whose practice leads to a deeper order of understanding. This seems true not only for the person who experiences art, but also the artist—whether musician, painter, sculptor, or poet. The 2022 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture invites contributions from across the disciplines (including scholars, artists, and other practitioners) as we explore together how art seeks understanding and thus contributes to human flourishing.”

Their line-up of presenters includes several from within Baylor’s own distinguished ranks, such as composer and liturgist Carlos Colón, theologian Natalie Carnes, art historian Heidi J. Hornik, and literature scholar David Lyle Jeffrey, in addition to famous outside guests like theologian-pianist Jeremy Begbie, contemporary nihonga painter Makoto Fujimura, and Early Christian art historian Robin M. Jensen. See a full list by clicking on the boldface link above.

Books
Just a fraction of the books authored by the eminent speakers at the upcoming Baylor symposium

The website does not provide a list of presentation titles, but among the topic suggestions on its call for proposals page are how art contributes to moral and spiritual perception, sensitivity, and/or character formation; the power of imagination; the relation of poetic art to the communication of moral truth; art therapy in pastoral counseling; how musical settings of biblical texts add value to those texts; and how to reconcile the making of religious art with the commandment in Exodus 20:4.

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SONG: “The Lord Is My Light” by Lillian Bouknight | Performed by the Notre Dame Folk Choir, dir. Emorja Roberson: “Very little is known about Lillian Bouknight (d. 1990), except that she was an African American from North Carolina, and a soloist and composer in the Pentecostal Holiness movement in the Aliquippam, PA, Community, also serving as a prayer warrior and on the Mother’s Board.” This setting of Psalm 63 that she composed appears in the African American Heritage Hymnal #160.

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VIDEO: “Theology through the Arts” by Jeremy Begbie: A pioneer of the field of theology and the arts, UK-born and US-based scholar Jeremy Begbie is the headliner for the Baylor symposium mentioned above. I met him briefly at a Duke conference a few years ago, and he’s such a delightful person, not to mention a phenomenal teacher who often dispenses wisdom from a piano bench. If you’re not familiar with his work, this fourteen-minute video is a great introduction to it. He’s all about demonstrating how instrumental music (his specialization is Western classical) can help unlock the truths of the Christian gospel. Here he talks about the given, the improvised, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

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BLOG: Pray with Jill Geoffrion: The Rev. Dr. Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion is a spiritual director, pilgrim guide, workshop leader, and retreat facilitator who spends at least three months a year at Chartres Cathedral in France, known for its architecture, sculpture, prayer labyrinth, and the world’s most extensive collection of twelfth- and thirteenth-century stained glass. An ordained American Baptist minister with an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD in women’s studies and Christian spiritualities, she is the author of Visions of Mary: Art, Devotion, and Beauty at Chartres Cathedral (2017) (beautifully produced, from Paraclete Press), Pondering the Labyrinth: Questions to Pray on the Path (2003), and more. Contact her if you are interested in a spiritually based visit to Chartres or in having her present to a group.

Geoffrion is also a professional photographer, and she shares many of her beautiful art photographs from Chartres on her blog, providing specific prompts for prayer and meditation based on the images. For example, in a post on the stained glass panel of Saint Martin bringing a man back to life, she writes, “Think of what is dead and needs resurrection in you, in those you love, in those who live within twenty-five miles of you, and in whatever country you call home. Then, take a very deep exhale and plead with God, ‘Bring resurrection!’” Or, reflecting on the sixteenth-century Nativity sculpture group attributed to Jehan Soulas, she invites us to “imitate one or more of the sets of eyes in the image . . . as you pray, ‘May I see with Your eyes, God. Teach me to see anew.’”

Saint Martin bringing a man back to life (with two onlookers), 1217–20, stained glass window panel in the south ambulatory at Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo: Jill Geoffrion.

Soulas, Jehan_Nativity
Jehan Soulas, Nativity, 1529, from the choir screen in Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo: Jill Geoffrion.

Geoffrion’s blog is a wonderful free resource for those looking to engage prayerfully with the art treasures of Chartres Cathedral. New content is typically posted in batches a few times a year, and the archive goes back to 2015. Sometimes Geoffrion digitally isolates certain details of the stained glass to aid in a more concentrated focus.

As I said when I featured the Tree of Jesse window several years ago, Chartres is high on my list of places to visit, for aesthetic, historical, and spiritual reasons. I hope to make it there sometime in the next five years.

Roundup: Feast of Mary Magdalene; holiness of people and place; black squares

Richardson, Jan_The Hours of Mary Magdalene
The Hours of Mary Magdalene by Jan L. Richardson

ART CYCLE: The Hours of Mary Magdalene by Jan L. Richardson: July 22 is the feast day of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s closest disciples and the first witness and preacher of the Resurrection. American artist, writer, and minister Jan L. Richardson created a sequence of collages picturing events from her life, drawing on both the biblical narratives and medieval legends. The structure and presentation (decorative borders, Latin script) were inspired by medieval books of hours, used for the praying of the Divine Office. The text below each image reads, Deus, in adiutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina (“O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me”), the first verse of Psalm 70, which is prayed at the start of each of the canonical hours.

According to legend, after Jesus’s ascension Mary Magdalene moved to southern France, where she preached the gospel and performed miracles. The last thirty years of her life she lived as a hermit in a cave. Each time she prayed the hours, she was lifted up to heaven by angels, then brought back down at the end of her devotions.

Richardson put together a delightful little video showcasing the art cycle as well as the song “Mary Magdalena” by her late husband, Garrison Doles.

You can purchase these images as digital downloads from Richardson’s website:

  1. Matins: The Blessing Cups: Mary Magdalene and Jesus at Tea
  2. Lauds: After the Cross: The Magdalene’s Farewell
  3. Prime: Shopping for Spices: The Three Marys on Holy Saturday
  4. Terce: Touch Me Not: Resurrection Morning
  5. Sext: Release: Mary Magdalene Freeing Prisoners
  6. None: L’Evangeliste: Mary Magdalene Preaching in France
  7. Vespers: At Her Prayers: Mary Magdalene with a Book of Hours
  8. Compline: Magdalene Ascending: The Divine Hours

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DANCE: “Holy, Holy, Holy”: Choreographed by Betsey Beckman to a song by Karen Drucker, this dance number affirms the sacredness of every human being. It was filmed inside St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a church that “invites people to see God’s image in all humankind, to sing and dance to Jesus’ lead, and to become God’s friends.” Beckman dances with Dawon Davis and Corey Action throughout the worship space, which comprises a rectangular room where the Liturgy of the Word is celebrated and an octagonal rotunda for the Liturgy of the Table. The Dancing Saints icon that covers the walls is by Mark Doox. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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MUSIC:

>> “Locus iste” by Anton Bruckner, performed by VOCES8: The British vocal ensemble VOCES8 performs Anton Bruckner’s sacred motet “Locus iste” (This Place) at Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace in Guebwiller, France. Bruckner composed it in 1869 for the dedication of the Votivkapelle (votive chapel) at the New Cathedral in Linz, Austria, where he had been a cathedral organist. The text—a Latin gradual for church dedications and their anniversaries—is informed by Jacob’s saying, after his dream of the ladder uniting heaven and earth, that “surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16), and by the story of the burning bush where Moses is told to “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5).

Locus iste a Deo factus est,
inaestimabile sacramentum;
irreprehensibilis est.

This place is made by God,
a priceless sacrament;
it is without reproach.

(Or, alternatively:)
This dwelling is God’s handiwork;
a mystery beyond all price,
that cannot be spoken against.

>> “Tabernacle” by Josh Rodriguez, performed by Mary Vanhoozer: A modernist piano composition inspired by Psalm 19, dedicated to the composer’s father-in-law, the theologian Kevin Vanhoozer.

Tabernacle is a musical triptych shaped by the drama of Psalm 19. While this word, tabernacle, is loaded with religious affection within both Jewish and Christian traditions, some modern readers may not be familiar with its implications. Merriam-Webster offers three related definitions: “a house of worship, a receptacle for the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, or a tent sanctuary used by the Israelites during the Exodus.” By extension, it has come to represent a “dwelling place” or a “temporary shelter.” In short, this is no ordinary space, rather it is a place that is set apart, made holy for a terrifying transformative encounter with the Divine.

Fragments of a prayerful hymn-like melody appear underneath this canopy of sounds. Shifting metric changes, polyrhythms, and percussive primal-sounding harmonies climax in a loud, noisy quote from the 16th-century Genevan Psalter.

More extensive program notes can be found in the YouTube video description.

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ESSAY: “Precedents of the Unprecedented: Black Squares Before Malevich” by Andrew Spira, Public Domain Review: Considered one of the seminal works of modern art, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) has been cast as a total break from all that came before it. Yet searching across more than five hundred years of images related to cosmology, religious devotion, mourning, humor, politics, and philosophy, art historian Andrew Spira uncovers a slew of unlikely foreshadows to Malevich’s radical abstraction.

Et sic in infinitum
Robert Fludd’s black square representing the nothingness that was prior to the universe, from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617). On each side of the square is written “Et sic in infinitum…” (“And so on to infinity…”).

Blood of Christ
Black pages with red drops of blood, signifying the wounds of Christ, from a psalter and rosary of the Virgin, ca. 1500. The recto is worn from devotional engagement, damaged through kissing and rubbing, perhaps.

For a much more extensive treatment of the topic, see Spira’s Foreshadowed: Malevich’s “Black Square” and Its Precursors, published this month. And for a faith-positive (non-nihilistic) reading of Malevich’s Black Square that honors the artist’s own views, see pages 209–25 of Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness’s Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, where they discuss the work in relation to the Russian icons tradition and “apophatic or ‘negative’ theology—a mode of theology that meditates on the absolute Fullness and Otherness of God by way of negating the verbal, visual and conceptual forms used to signify (and to ‘grasp’) God” (220).

Roundup: Spirituality of food docuseries; a psalm and a jazz band walk into a bar; and more

DOCUMENTARY SERIES: Taste and See, dir. Andrew Brumme:Taste and See is a documentary series exploring the spirituality of food with farmers, chefs, bakers, and winemakers engaging with food as a profound gift from God. Their stories serve as a meditation on the beauty, mystery, and wonder to be found in every meal shared at the table.” The Rabbit Room, who is partnering with them for a virtual cinema event (see below), says, “If, in some blessed alternate universe, Robert Farrar Capon had decided to make a documentary with Terrence Malick, guided by the foundational wisdom of Wendell Berry, then they would have made something like the pilot of Taste and See.”

Some of the people you see in the series trailer are Shamu Sadeh, cofounder of Adamah Farm and Fellowship in Connecticut, which integrates organic farming, Jewish learning, sustainable living, and contemplative spiritual practice (Adamah is the focus of the pilot film); The Soul of Wine: Savoring the Goodness of God author Gisela Kreglinger, who grew up on a winery that has been in her family for generations and who leads wine pilgrimages in Burgundy and Franconia (“a spiritual, cultural, and sensory exploration of wine”); Norman Wirzba, a professor at Duke who teaches and publishes at the intersections of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies (see, e.g., his Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating); Kendall Vanderslice, a North Carolina baker, author, and founder of Edible Theology, which offers “curriculum, community, and communications that connect the Communion table to the kitchen table”; and Joel Salatin, who raises livestock on his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley.

You can buy tickets to a virtual screening of the hour-long pilot, which is happening twice daily from June 3 to June 19 and includes exclusive access to a panel discussion with singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, theologian Norman Wirzba, and director Andrew Brumme. Revenue from ticket sales will fund the production of future films, some of which are already in the works. “The funding raised will determine how far we can go and which stories we can pursue,” Brumme tells me. “We’re hopeful the virtual event will bring together enough of a supportive base of people who want to see this series made.” There’s also an option on the website to donate.

To hear more from the director, especially about the inspiration behind the series, check out the interview Drew Miller conducted with him.

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DISCUSSION PANEL: “Art Between the Sacred and the Secular,” June 6, 2022, Akademie der Künste, Berlin: Moderated by the Rev. Professor Ben Quash, this free public event (reserve tickets here) puts in conversation artist Alicja Kwade; Dr. María López-Fanjul y Díez del Corral, senior curator of the Bode Museum and the Gemäldegalerie; and Dr. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and the National Gallery, London. The questions they’ll address (see below) sound really intriguing!

Kwade, Alicja_Causal Emergence
Alicja Kwade (Polish, 1979–), Causal Emergence (December 2020), 2019. Watch hands on cardboard, framed, 175 × 175 cm.

“The abiding power of Christian motifs, ideas and styles in a host of modern and contemporary works that superficially look un- or anti-Christian indicates that visual art and Christian tradition have not become complete strangers. This invites analysis and understanding.

“How have Christian artworks and artistic traditions found new articulations, caused new departures, or provoked new subversions in the last 100 to 150 years? What forms of engagement between theology and modern and contemporary art do such developments in the relationship between art and Christianity invite and reward?

“How do viewers (Christian and non-Christian) interact with historical Christian art today, and how do modern sensibilities affect our viewing of earlier Christian artworks and artistic traditions?

“Is contemporary art an alternative to religion or can it sometimes be an ally? How do contemporary art and religion each respond to human experiences of the absurd or the tragic? What do contemporary art and the spaces in which we encounter it, tell us about the histories of both Western Christianity and Western secularisation?”

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FUNDRAISER: New Ordinary Time Album: The indie folk trio Ordinary Time is one of my favorite musical groups—I heard them in concert at a church here in Baltimore a few years ago!—so I’m really excited to see that they’re working on their sixth full-length album, their first since 2016. It will be produced by the esteemed Isaac Wardell, founder of Bifrost Arts and the Porter’s Gate. Per usual, it will comprise a mix of original and classic sacred songs, including the new “I Will Trust,” demoed in the second video below. Help fund their production costs through this Indiegogo campaign, which ends June 15. A donation of just $25 will get you an early download of the album.

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SONG: “Oh Give Thanks (Psalm 107)” by Wendell Kimbrough: Wendell Kimbrough is among today’s foremost singer-songwriters engaging with the Psalms. His adaptation of Psalm 107 [previously] is one of his most popular songs, ever since the original studio recording released in 2016. Now he’s recorded a live version with a New Orleans jazz band! It is available on most streaming and purchase platforms.

The music video was shot in February at a bar in Daphne, Alabama, with some eighty of Kimbrough’s friends and supporters, and it premiered May 13. It was his way of saying farewell to his Church of the Apostles community in Fairhope, Alabama, where he served as worship leader and artist-in-residence for eight years. He left this spring to take a new job as uptown artist-in-residence at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.

“From the time I wrote ‘Oh Give Thanks,’ I always pictured it as a bar tune, specifically set in New Orleans,” Kimbrough says. “The image Psalm 107 conjures for me is a group of friends sitting together swapping stories of God’s deliverance and raising their glasses to celebrate his goodness.” He has noted that some people are uneasy about singing the line “We cried like drunken sailors” in church, but he points out that it’s there in the Old Testament psalm! (Recounting how God rescued a group of men from a storm at sea, the psalmist says that as the waves rose, “they reeled and staggered like drunkards / and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, / and he brought them out from their distress,” vv. 27–28).

To learn how to play the song on guitar, see Kimbrough’s video tutorial. You may also want to check out the songs of thanksgiving I compiled on Spotify.

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CHURCH ARCHITECTURE: Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno, Italy: In 2013 architect Mario Cucinella won a competition held by Italy’s assembly of Catholic bishops to create the new parish church of Santa Maria Goretti in the hilltop town of Mormanno in Calabria. Because a third of the funds had to be raised locally, the project wasn’t completed until last year. Cucinella says that gave him time to win over its most important constituency: the elderly women who go to Mass every day, and who at first “were suspicious of its modernism.” [HT: My Modern Met]

Cucinella designed an elegantly minimalist concrete building with sinuous surfaces that form the shape of a four-leaf clover, a reinterpretation, Cucinella says, of the shape of Baroque churches. The enclosure has only a few openings. “On its north side, two walls part to create an entrance—while also contributing edges to a cross cut into the curves and lit by LEDs at night. On its south side, a small window is positioned to focus afternoon sunlight on a crucifix on July 6,” Maria Goretti’s birthday.

Santa Maria Goretti Church
Santa Maria Goretti Church, Mormanno, Italy, designed by Mario Cucinella Architects, completed 2021. Photo: Duccio Malagamba.

Photo: Duccio Malagamba

Maraniello, Giuseppe_Baptismal font
Baptismal font by Giuseppe Maraniello. Photo: Duccio Malagamba.

Inside, the walls are hand-finished in plaster mixed with hemp fibers and lime, which give them a mottled, earth-toned look. The most dominant feature of the interior is the twelve-foot-deep scrim that falls from the ceiling in swirls, filtering in sunlight. Artist Giuseppe Maraniello (b. 1945) was commissioned to create the lectern, tabernacle, baptismal font, and figure of the Virgin Mary, while the simple steel and wood seating is by Mario Cucinella Design. Click on any of the three photos above to view more.

The church’s namesake, one of the youngest saints to be canonized, was stabbed to death in 1902 at age eleven while resisting a rape. She is the patron saint of purity, young women, and victims of sexual assault.

Roundup: Psalms and the arts, Ukrainian Easter Choir, and more

BLOG POST: “An open letter to pastors (A non-mom speaks about Mother’s Day)” by Amy Young: There’s disagreement among church leaders on whether Hallmark holidays, such as Mother’s Day, should be recognized during a worship service, and if so, how. Having mothers stand (while women who are not mothers in the conventional sense remain seated) can be very othering and bring up feelings of sadness or shame. It’s also a day when people are thinking about their own mothers, which can evoke a complex range of emotions.

Amy Young believes there is a way to honor mothers in church without alienating others, as well as to acknowledge the breadth of experiences associated with mothering. She has drafted a pastoral address that I find so wise and compassionate. Some women are estranged from their children. Some have experienced miscarriage or abortion. Some have had failed adoptions, or failed IVF treatments. Some placed a child for adoption. Some have been surrogate mothers. Some are foster mothers, or are the primary guardian of a relative’s child. Some are spiritual moms. Some women want to be mothers but have no partner or have had trouble conceiving. Some were abused by their mothers. Some have lost mothers. Some never met their mother. Young puts her arms around all these people who are potentially in the pews on Mother’s Day, making room for the complexity of the day—which does include celebration!

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VIDEO: “United with Beauty: The Psalms, the Arts, and the Human Experience” by Mallory Johnson: Mallory Johnson graduated last weekend with a bachelor’s in music and worship (concentration: voice) from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. (In the fall she will be starting an MDiv program at Beeson Divinity School.) All the seniors in the Samford School of the Arts are required to complete a capstone project tailored to their individual interests and career goals. As Johnson’s interests center on theology, history, and the arts, she created a twenty-minute video rooted in the Psalms that integrates music, poetry, short excerpts of fiction, visual art, and quotes from van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Goethe, Luther, and others, resulting in a contemplative multimedia experience.

I resonate so much with Johnson’s approach of bringing together works from different artistic disciplines to interpret one another and to invite the viewer into worship. Her curation is stellar! To cite just one example, the contemporary choral work Stars by Ēriks Ešenvalds plays as we see, among other images, an Aboriginal dot painting of the constellations Orion and Canis and a nighttime landscape by realist painter Józef Chełmoński. Another: John Adams’s double piano composition “Hallelujah Junction” is brought into conversation with Psalm 150 and a painting by Jewish artist Richard Bee of David dancing before the ark.

Józef Chełmoński (Polish, 1849–1914), Starry Night, 1888. Oil on canvas, 22 13/16 × 28 3/4 in. (58 × 73 cm). National Museum in Kraków, Poland.

The video opens with the theme of awe and wonder—expanses of sky and sea and field; the beauty and vastness of God mirrored in the natural world—and then moves to lament—of the prospering of the wicked; of exhaustion, anxiety, and other forms of mental or spiritual anguish and their causes; of personal sin—and finally ends with an assurance of grace and with exultation. Johnson shows how the longings of modern people overlap with those of the biblical psalmists. Here’s her description:

In his famous work titled Confessions, St. Augustine writes this: “Yet to praise you, God, is the desire of every human.” Is this true? What does this look like?

During my time at Samford, I have felt my heart and mind overflow with love for the arts. As a Christian, they have played a devotional role in my life. I find such joy in seeing connections between music, art, and literature that may seem unrelated on the surface. I believe that all humans have a longing for the goodness of God and we find “echoes” of Him everywhere, and most beautifully in artistic expression.

I wanted to show others how I understand the world as a Christian artist. This project is a journey through the Psalms, using art to reinforce the idea that the Psalms capture the full universal human experience. Across time and space, we have all felt the same things and we have all had the same deep longing for “something higher.”

I hope you can allow this project to wash over you. Make time to watch it alone or with someone you love, distraction-free. Turn the lights out, light a candle, watch it on a big screen with the volume up loud. Be cozy under a blanket with a cup of coffee, or grab a journal and write down anything that sticks out to you! It is my earnest desire that you will be moved by the artistic expression of humanity, and that you may realize that God has always been the goodness you most deeply desire.

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SONGS:

>> “Broken Healers” by Elise Massa: Singer-songwriter Elise Massa is the assistant director of music and worship arts at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh. A meditation on Christ as Wounded Healer, this song from her 2014 album of demos, We Are All Rough Drafts, was inspired by an Eastertide sermon.

Here’s the final stanza (the full lyrics are at the Bandcamp link):

Broken healers are we all
In a living world, decayed
With broken speech we stutter, “Glory”
As broken fingers mend what’s frayed
Holy Spirit, come, anoint us
As you anointed Christ the King
Who wore the crown of the oppressed
Who bears the scars of suffering

>> “Agnus Dei” by Michael W. Smith, performed by the Ukrainian Easter Choir: This is one of the few CCM songs I listened to as a young teen (Third Day’s version from a WOW CD!) that I’m still really fond of. In this video that premiered April 17, an eighty-person choir conducted by Sergiy Yakobchuk was assembled from multiple churches in Ukraine to perform for an Easter service in Lviv organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei” is one of three songs they sang, in both English and Ukrainian. The name of the soloist is not given. Many of the vocalists in the choir have been displaced from their homes by the current war with Russia. One of them says, “With the war, celebrating the Resurrection means for us now life above death, good above evil.”

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PRAYER EXERCISE: “Visio Divina: A 20-Minute Guided Prayer Reflection for the Crisis in Ukraine”: Visio divina, Latin for “divine seeing,” is a spiritual practice of engaging prayerfully with an image, usually an artwork—allowing the visual to invite you into communion with God. On March 17 Vivianne David led a virtual visio divina exercise with Natalya Rusetska’s Crucifixion, hosted by Renovaré. I caught up with the video afterward and found it a very meaningful experience. As the painting is by a Ukrainian artist and represents Christ’s passion, the war in Ukraine is a natural connection point.

I appreciate David’s wise guidance, which includes these reminders:

  • Stay with the image, regardless of whether or not you ​“feel” something happening right away. There is something beautiful about faithfully waiting with that space, having dedicated it to God as a time of prayer.
  • Notice what draws your attention, what invites you into the image—let that become a space for conversation with Christ.
  • Notice what sort of emotions arise as you stay with the image. How does it awaken desire? Let these emotions lead you back to continued dialogue with God.

This kind of quiet, focused looking with an openness to encounter is something I encourage on the blog. Any of David’s three tips above I would also suggest for any art image I post—a corrective to hasty scrolling habits. Stick around for the last four minutes of the video to see dozens and dozens of impressions from participants, which may reveal new aspects of the painting to you.

Lent, Day 40 (In the Grave)

I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength:

Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand.

Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.

Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah.

Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me; thou hast made me an abomination unto them: I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.

. . .

Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah.

Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction?

Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

—Psalm 88:4–8, 10–12 (KJV)

LOOK: Playa Studies by Craig Goodworth (HT)

Goodworth, Craig_Playa Studies
Craig Goodworth (American, 1977–), Playa Studies, 2017. Site-specific land-based artwork, Great Basin Desert, Oregon. Photograph by the artist.

Craig Goodworth’s practice encompasses installation, poetry, drawing, research, teaching, and farm labor. He holds master’s degrees in fine art, sustainable communities, and divinity, and his interests include land, place, religion, mysticism, and folk traditions.

During a four-week residency in the Great Basin Desert in Oregon, he made a series of land-based artworks called Playa Studies, which he documented through photographs. (A playa is an area of flat, dried-up land.) The shape of this one evokes a grave.

LISTEN: “Aestimatus sum” (I am counted . . .) by Tomás Luis de Victoria, 1585 | Performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen, dir. Paul Hillier, 2017

Aestimatus sum cum descendentibus in lacum,
factus sum sicut homo sine adjutorio, inter mortuos liber.
    Versus: Posuerunt me in lacu inferiori, in tenebrosis et in umbra mortis.
Factus sum sicut homo sine adjutorio, inter mortuos liber.

English translation:

I am counted with them that go down into the pit:
I am as a man that hath no strength: free among the dead.
    Verse: They have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps.
I am as a man that hath no strength: free among the dead.

This is the eighth responsory for Holy Saturday. Tomás Luis de Victoria [previously] of Spain, one of the principal composers of the late Renaissance, set it to music in 1585. It’s the penultimate motet (a multivoiced musical composition sung without instrumental accompaniment) in a set of eighteen by Victoria, titled Tenebrae Responsories.

The text is taken from Psalm 87:5–7 of the Latin Vulgate (Psalm 88:4–6 in the King James Version and most modern translations). The most depressing psalm in the Psalter, Psalm 88 ends not on a note of hope but with the lament that “darkness has become my only companion.” (Hello darkness, my old friend.)

While the psalmist spoke in metaphors of death, Jesus went there literally. After suffering much affliction, he descended “into the pit” of the earth—his grave. He knew emotional and spiritual darkness, and now he was surrounded by the physical reality. The Light had gone out. The Word was made silent.

Imagine what Jesus’s followers must have felt the day after the Crucifixion. Grief, devastation, loneliness, bewilderment, hopelessness. They were left bereft of their Lord’s presence.

On Holy Saturday, we sit in the pocket of that grief, that loss.

N. T. Wright says, “We cannot be Easter people if we are not first Good Friday people and then Holy Saturday people. Don’t expect even a still, small voice. Stay still yourself, and let the quietness and darkness of the day be your only companions.”

Roundup: Georges Rouault, “The Exultant Leper,” and more

LECTURE: “Georges Rouault and the Art of Sacred Engagement” by Fr. Terrence Dempsey, SJ: “From his earliest works, Georges Rouault [1871–1958] selected subjects that combined a strong religious conviction together with a concern for suffering humanity. This lecture by MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, S.J., offers an overview of Rouault’s work, including his paintings, prints, and stained glass. Dempsey presents Rouault as an artist who, from his early work through his mature work, remained concerned about the disadvantaged, the outsiders, and the victims of war, and who linked all of these people to the suffering of Christ. In this way, Rouault’s engagement with the world was not so much political (although one can find political tones in his work) as it was sacred. It involved the totality of who we are—corporeal and spiritual.”

Rouault is a favorite artist of mine. I got to see his entire Miserere et Guerre (“Have mercy,” a quotation from Psalm 51, and “War”) series of etchings in person a few years ago, and it’s phenomenal. Every Christian needs to know this series. I recommend a copy of This Anguished World of Shadows: George Rouault’s Miserere et Guerre for all bookshelves.

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ART VIDEO: “The Story About the Painting Called The Exultant Leper: Wilder Adkins shared this video with me of his uncle Les Smith interpreting a painting he owns before his congregation last summer at Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He commissioned it from artist Brian Whelan, to depict the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers from Luke 17:11–19. Sadly, Smith passed away last month.

Whelan, Brian_The Exultant Leper
Brian Whelan (Irish, 1957–), The Exultant Leper, 2021. Mixed media on canvas. Private collection.

Smith said he requested the title “The Exultant Leper” and asked that it appear on the painting itself. “I am the exultant leper,” he says, pointing to the figure at the bottom right. “I am the guy who better always be at the feet of Jesus giving thanks.”

While I have certainly seen and shared plenty of academic presentations on art (such as the one on Rouault above), there is something so special about hearing ordinary folks (that is, nonspecialists) share with others art that is personally meaningful to them—and more than that, in this case, that they helped bring to fruition. Smith’s enthusiasm was such that even his neighborhood trash collectors have been invited into his home to enjoy the piece! I love that he took the step of supporting a living artist by commissioning an original artwork, and that he integrated that art into his home life, displaying it above his mantle, where he would see it daily and be reminded of his own story of transformation through Christ.

(P.S. Last fall on Instagram and Facebook I shared a standout painting of Whelan’s from the 8th Catholic Arts Biennial at the Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania: https://www.instagram.com/p/CVS6tlagy8s/; https://www.facebook.com/artandtheology/posts/1582166995476777.)

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CROSS-DISCIPLINARY VIDEO PRESENTATION: “Psalms in Dialogue: (Be)Holding the Broken Pieces”: I shared Duke’s first “Psalms in Dialogue” in October 2020. Here’s their second offering in the same vein. “In this online presentation [which premiered October 2, 2021], Duke University Chapel and the Duke Chapel Choir will welcome visual artist Makoto Fujimura, theologian Dr. Ellen Davis, Tap Legacy Foundation co-founder Andrew Nemr, Ekklesia Contemporary Ballet, and dancer Paiter van Yperen for an evening of creativity and conversation inspired by the biblical Psalms. In the program, artists, musicians, theologians, singers, and dancers will present performances and works inspired by five Psalms: 46, 88, 90, 91, and 92.” I particularly enjoyed the teen ballet number choreographed by Elisa Schroth to Karl Jenkins’s “Healing Light: A Celtic Prayer” at 52:18 (lyrics below).

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you

Amen

Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the gentle night to you
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you

Amen

Deep peace of Christ, the light of the world, to you
Deep peace of Christ to you
Deep peace of Christ, the light of the world, to you

Amen

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SONGS:

>> “Fill My Cup” by Thad Cockrell, feat. The New Respects: This song appears on Cockrell’s album If in Case You Feel the Same (2020); an older version is on Alone Together (2016) under the title “Walking to a City.”

>> “Victory of Christ” by Cory Dauber: Cory Dauber is a member of the Deeper Well Gospel Collective, a group of musicians and songwriters in the Portland, Oregon, area who are connected to Door of Hope church. Last year Dauber released his second full-length album, May All Times Go to You. This song appears on his debut album, Turn into a Mountain (2016).

Roundup: Alternative Advent, Fuller Studio videos, Desmond Tutu and Jeff Chu interviews, Psalm 121 in Arabic

“Lift Up Your Eyes” (Advent 2021): Kezia M’Clelland’s annual “Alternative Advent” video is here—a compilation of news photos from the year, from various photojournalists, matched with promises/declarations from scripture and a song. (I’ve described this project in years past; see here.) Migrant caravans, refugee camps, hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients, a protest against a military coup, wildfires, volcanic aftermath . . . the global suffering we hear about in headlines and statistics is made personal in these intimate photographs of people who are experiencing it firsthand. M’Clelland bears tender witness to this suffering, but she also takes care to include signs of hope. Alongside images of devastation and misery are images of love, joy, and fortitude. The overall tone is one of somberness but not despair. As I do with each year’s “Alternative Advent,” I spent an afternoon interceding with God for each person in the photos and for others enduring the same harrowing journeys or disasters. I realize how my privilege as a white, middle-class US American insulates me from a lot of these realities, and I know that prayer must be accompanied by action.

Find out more context for the photos and their sources on Instagram @alternative_advent.

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VIDEO ROUNDUP FROM FULLER STUDIO: The Arts for the Life of the Church: In these six, five-minute videos shot by Fuller Studio, artists and creatives (most of them participants in the Brehm Residency) reflect on the diverse ways that the arts enliven, shape, and define their faith, their theology, and their work. Here’s one from the series, in which interdisciplinary artist Dea Jenkins discusses the ways the Spirit’s leading can be intertwined with the process of art-making, and how art has the capacity to be both prophetic and healing.

The other videos feature . . .

  • Young-Ly Hong Chandra on how she sees her creative work participating in God’s work of creation
  • Michelle Lang-Raymond on how theater and the arts can create opportunities for us to safely yet deeply engage with today’s polarizing issues
  • Rachel Morris on how incorporating the arts into worship services and pastoral care can contribute to the church’s healing work in the lives of its members
  • Jin Cho on the holistic, social, and communal dimensions of preaching and the liturgy
  • John Van Deusen on the significance of creating art in community and on the ways we are shaped by inviting both God and others into our creative processes

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ON BEING INTERVIEWS:

>> “Remembering Desmond Tutu”: The South African Anglican bishop, theologian, and human rights activist Desmond Tutu died December 26, 2021, and the On Being podcast re-released this 2010 interview Krista Tippett conducted with him. It’s a great introduction to his story, which includes especially his faith. He discusses the Bible as “dynamite,” our identity as “God-carriers,” the interfaith makeup of the anti-apartheid movement, God’s sense of humor, reconciliation as a process, his experience voting for the first time at age sixty-three (after decades of disenfranchisement), how entrenched racism had become in his own thinking, the beating heart of love at the center of existence, and more. And oh, his laughter is so sweet!

>> “A Life of Holy Curiosity: In Friendship with Rachel Held Evans” with Jeff Chu: Jeff Chu is a journalist, preacher, and co-leader of the Evolving Faith community. When his friend Rachel Held Evans, the famous Christian writer, died unexpectedly in 2019, he took it upon himself to bring to fruition the unfinished book she was working on, Wholehearted Faith (HarperOne, 2021). I enjoyed learning more about Evans through this conversation, and about Chu. They read several excerpts from the book and discuss Chu’s Chinese Baptist upbringing, the recent phenomenon of “religious-but-in-exile,” the enormity of God’s love, the Incarnation, the Psalms, doubt, grief, and the lesson of the compost pile.

(As a side note: I recently came across Evans’s other posthumously published book, for children, titled What Is God Like?, in Target and bought it on a whim. It’s fabulous.)

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SONG: “I Lift My Eyes” by Christopher Tin: A setting of Psalm 121 in Arabic, performed by Abeer Nehme with Christopher Tin and the Angel City Chorale. Nehme is a Lebanese singer and musicologist, one of whose specializations is sacred music from the Syriac Maronite, Syriac Orthodox, and Byzantine traditions. [HT: Joy Clarkson]

Advent, Day 1

LOOK: At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight) by Childe Hassam

Hassam, Childe_At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight)
Childe Hassam (American, 1859–1935), At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight), 1885–86. Oil on canvas, 42 × 60 in. (106.9 × 152.4 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

LISTEN: “Psalm 25” by Poor Bishop Hooper, 2020 [free download]

Nobody who waits for you will see disgrace
Teach me all your righteous paths
Make known your ways to me, Lord

Lead me by your truth, my God
And teach me now
I’ll wait for you the whole day long
You are the God of my salvation

You’ve shown your love from ages past
It existed from antiquity through history
Forgotten of my sinful youth
For your goodness, God
My eyes are always on you

Psalm 25 is not a common Advent text, but it is one of the readings assigned for today by the Revised Common Lectionary. Advent is a season of waiting, penitence, and promise—themes reflected in this psalm of David’s.

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.

Thanksgiving Playlist

I’ve compiled a playlist of songs of thanks to God for life, beauty, family, salvation, fruitful harvests, and countless other blessings, and for God’s very self. To make a list on this theme is difficult, as every praise song, of which there are millions, is essentially a song of thanksgiving. So many songs and other musical pieces, including those from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, testify to experiences of goodness. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but I focus (though not exclusively) on songs that explicitly say “Thanks.” I also want to make clear that God deserves thanks not just for what he’s done but for who he is.

To save the playlist to your Spotify account, click the ellipsis and select “Add to Your Library.”

The list is bookended by the seventeenth-century Trinitarian doxology written by Thomas Ken (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . .”), which many churches sing weekly to the tune of OLD 100TH. While the first on the list is in English, the last is in Hawaiian.

Several of the songs are settings of the biblical psalms. The Abayudaya community of Jews in Eastern Uganda, for example, sings the call-and-response Psalm 136 in Luganda; led by J. J. Keki, the congregation responds after each line with “His steadfast love endures forever!” Banjoist Béla Fleck [previously] and mandolinist Chris Thile use this melody from Abayudaya as the basis of their “Psalm 136” duet, which appears on Fleck’s new album, Bluegrass Heart.

There’s also Psalm 92 (“It is good to give thanks to the Lord . . .”) from Poor Bishop Hooper’s EveryPsalm project, Wendell Kimbrough’s Psalm 107, and a classical guitar rendition of Jewish singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman’s “Hodu” [previously], a setting of Psalm 118:1–4. Rebekah Osborn also sets Psalm 118, in English.

“We Thank You” is by Broken Walls, a musical group comprising followers of the Jesus Way who seek to build bridges between the church and the First Nations people of North America. Founded by Jonathan Maracle, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga Territory in Ontario, Canada, the band uses indigenous instruments and sounds to share the Creator’s love.

Across the Atlantic, the monks of Keur Moussa Abbey [previously] in Senegal sing “Nous Te Louons, Père Invisible” (“We Praise You, Invisible Father”), accompanied by balafon (a gourd-resonated xylophone). The French lyrics translate as follows:

Lord of immortality
We praise you, invisible Father
You are the source of life
We praise you, invisible Father
The source of all light
We praise you, invisible Father
You are the source of grace
We praise you, invisible Father
Friend of mankind, friend of the poor, you draw everything unto yourself through the coming of your beloved Son!
We praise you, invisible Father

I’ve also included a dedicatory instrumental piece played on kora and oboe for the inauguration and consecration of the abbey.

Praise be to God, too, for natural wonders large and small. You’ll want to be sure to check out Alanna Boudreau’s setting of “Pied Beauty” by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. (For you Hopkins lovers, Boudreau also set “My own heart let me more have pity on” and “God’s Grandeur,” the latter appearing on Spotify as “Wb / Bw.”) There are also classics like “This Is My Father’s World” and, retuned and retitled by Ben Thomas, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” [previously].

“For the Beauty of the Earth,” which opens with gratitude for creation and then expands into other areas of thanks, is one of my all-time favorite hymns. Andrew Laparra’s straightforward rendition is so lovely, even though it does omit two of the verses—on the wonders of the human body (“. . . the mystic harmony linking sense and sound to sight”) and “the joy of human love . . .”

For the provision of food, there’s a delightful little song that Kim Gannon and Walter Kent wrote for the 1948 Disney short The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, the American nurseryman, conservationist, and folk hero. The song became popular in primary schools and children’s camps and at grace before meals, and in 2003 Mary Thienes Schünemann included an adaptation in the songbook and accompanying album This Is the Way We Wash-a-Day, which is what I’ve put on the list.

For another prayer appropriate for mealtime, see “Multilingual Grace” by Jaewoo Kim, Grace Funderburgh, Abraham Deng, and Josh Davis of Proskuneo Ministries [previously]. “Here in our community, we eat together a lot . . . and that means Koreans, Latinos, Americans, Burmese, and Sudanese and more coming together around the table,” Davis writes on the Proskuneo blog. “We wanted something we could sing to thank God together. And so we wrote this.” The chorus says “Thank you” in Arabic, Korean, Spanish, and Swahili:

Shukran
Gam-sa-hae
Gracias
Asante

(See the full lyrics.)

Relishing simply being alive is a common theme that comes across especially in songs like “So Glad I’m Here” by Bessie Jones, covered by Dan Zanes [previously] and Elizabeth Mitchell [previously], and “It’s Such a Good Feeling” by the Mister Rogers(!), charmingly jazzified by Holly Yarbrough.

Michael and Lisa Gungor sing of the gift of their second daughter, Lucette, in their song “Light.” Lucie, as they call her, whose name means “light,” was born in 2014 with Down syndrome and heart complications. Seven years and multiple heart surgeries later, she continues to fill the Gungors’ lives, and others’, with brightness.

Gratitude in all circumstances is another theme that comes up, in such songs as “Hallelujah” by the Sons of Rainer, “Sing” by Jon Batiste, and the traditional hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing.” And India Arie’s gorgeous “Give Thanks,” which expresses an attitude of welcome and embrace for all that life brings. In the refrain “Give thanks for all that is,” “Give thanks” is substituted in repeats with the words “Selah” (an untranslatable Hebrew word from the Psalms that probably indicates a reflective pause in the music), “Hallelujah” (Hebrew for “Praise the Lord”), “Namaste” (Sanskrit for “I bow to you”), and “Ashé” (a multivalent concept in Yoruba religion that carries the meaning, in one sense, of “So be it,” similar to “Amen” in Christianity).

Recited daily upon waking up, “Modeh Ani” by Nefesh Mountain is a Jewish prayer of thanks that translates to “I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is Your faithfulness!” It’s based on the belief that every morning, God renews every person as a new creation.

There are also gospel songs aplenty by artists including Shirley Ann Lee, Mahalia Jackson, Beyoncé [previously], Regina Belle, Roberta Martin, Janice Gaines (covering Andraé Crouch), and others from the Black church tradition.

Bob Marley’s “Thank You, Lord” from 1967 isn’t on Spotify, but an admirable cover by his fellow Jamaican reggae artist Max Romeo is. Sam Cooke’s recording of “I Thank God” by Jack Hoffman, Elliott Lewis, and Bebe Blake is also missing from the streaming service, but I love what the Avett Brothers do with the song, so I’ve featured them instead.

Our gratitude for God’s love and hospitality should overflow into our relationships with other people, animals, and the earth, and our trust in God’s goodness means we should receive with openness what comes from his hand, even if it’s not what we asked for. In the playlist’s penultimate song, “The Welcome,” David Benjamin Blower sings, “Just as Love has welcomed you, my friends / Welcome one another and all things.”

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