Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?

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ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.

Continue reading “Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems”

ESSAY: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush

Blogger’s Note: One of the first three departments created in 1789 in the new executive branch of the United States government was the War Department—now called the Department of Defense. Having witnessed the evils of war firsthand while serving as surgeon general of the Middle Department of the Continental Army, founding father Benjamin Rush published an essay in Banneker’s Almanac in 1793 advocating for the formation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace to promote a counterethic. Among other things, his proposed Secretary of Peace would be responsible for abolishing capital punishment; dissolving state militias, including getting rid of military uniforms and titles; and providing every family with a Bible by which to become educated in Christ’s law.

His plan even provides for the interior decoration of the Peace Office—which must include lamb, dove, and olive branch imagery; biblical inscriptions; and a collection of plowshares and pruning hooks cast from swords and spears—as well as its sonic environment: the daily singing of peace hymns. The War Office, by contrast, should display images of death and destruction and bear cautionary inscriptions.

Literary satire, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Rush was an uncompromising champion of many causes throughout his lifetime, including, besides nonviolence, public education, prison and mental health reform, the abolition of slavery, mass distribution of Bibles, and temperance. While his proposal for a U.S. Department of Peace may sound airy-fairy and ridiculous, he very much believed in its practicality, and his confidence has been matched by twentieth- and twenty-first-century politicians: since the publication of Rush’s “Plan of a Peace-Office,” almost a hundred bills have been introduced in Congress proposing the creation of such a department, most recently in 2015.

The following essay is rekeyed in its entirety from Benjamin Rush’s Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas & Samuel F. Bradford, 1798).

Swords into Plowshares by Scott Erickson
Swords into Plowshares by Scott Erickson

“A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States”

Benjamin Rush

Among the defects which have been pointed out in the Federal Constitution by its antifederal enemies, it is much to be lamented that no person has taken notice of its total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is, an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.

It is to be hoped that no objection will be made to the establishment of such an office, while we are engaged in a war with the Indians, for as the War-Office of the United States was established in time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace-Office should be established in the time of war.

The plan of this office is as follows:

I. Let a Secretary of the Peace be appointed to preside in this office, who shall be perfectly free from all the present absurd and vulgar European prejudices upon the subject of government. Let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian, for the principles of republicanism and Christianity are no less friendly to universal and perpetual peace than they are to universal and equal liberty.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush”