Lent Playlist

Wednesday, February 17, is the start of Lent, a forty-day season of penitence and renewal. It’s not so much about making resolutions as it is about drawing near to God and encountering his grace afresh—at the foot of the cross.

That closeness entails confronting, confessing, and repenting of sin—sins of commission and omission. (The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that we sin “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”) It’s an uncomfortable process, but one that grows us, makes us healthy. It makes our relationships and communities healthier too. Jesus’s grace is not just warm fuzzies in the hearts of private individuals but, rather, works itself out in the world.

As a companion for the Lenten journey, I’ve curated a Spotify playlist of songs for the season, a mix of prayers and praises to the Triune God whose strength avails to meet us in our weakness and our need. Some are invitational, others are penitential, and others are celebratory. Along with images of dust, blood, wilderness, and death, there are themes of victory and rising, healing and wholeness, rivers that cleanse, rivers that quench thirst, agricultural metaphors of planting and growth, calls to lay down one’s burden and to rest in the Savior’s love. There are songs of pursuing and of being pursued (us calling out to God, God calling out to us), for as we deepen our desire for God, we come to realize how deep God’s desire is for us.

The playlist opens with “That We Might See” by Indianapolis folk duo Sister Sinjin, a setting (with slight modifications) of this Christina Rossetti poem:

Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the glowing egg a bird,
Within the shroud a butterfly:

Till taught by such, we see
Beyond all creatures Thee;
And hearken for Thy tender word,
And hear it, “Fear not: it is I.”

I chose this as the introductory song because, first, it expresses how out of “death” or dormancy can come great life and beauty—as with the buried seed that, once germinated, brings forth lushness. This is one of the prime metaphors of Lent, and this song is a supplication that we would have eyes to see it and, what’s more, participate in it (see Rom. 6). Second, I like how it reminds us of the tenderness and approachability of Jesus. Some people enter Lent with a sense of dread, fearing that their sins are too great, or that they will never measure up to some set standard of piety. But Jesus tells us not to be afraid. His love and mercy know no bounds. He wants to set us free from our illusions of self-sufficiency and for us to rely on his Spirit to work good things in and through us.

Let me share just a handful of other song highlights.

“Simple Gifts” is a one-verse Shaker hymn from 1848, performed here by the amazing female trio Mountain Man (Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Amelia Randall Meath, and Molly Erin Sarle). The Shakers, a Christian sect, were known for their use of dance during worship, and “bowing,” “bending,” and “turning” are dance instructions as much as they are instructions for life. Simplicity is another hallmark of the Shakers, a virtue and a discipline that Lent summons us to.

Another Lenten virtue is silence. In 2018 Paul Zach released the EP God Is the Friend of Silence, whose title track is inspired by a Mother Teresa quote: “We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence.”

There are many originals from the past decade on the playlist, but there are also a lot of classic hymns: “Amazing Grace” (to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”), “Softly and Tenderly” (intriguingly reharmonized by the Wilderness of Manitoba), “I Am Thine, O Lord,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “Grace That Is Greater,” “Nothing but the Blood,” “Near the Cross,” “Just as I Am,” “Jesus Paid It All,” “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” “Where He Leads Me.” And a beautiful adaptation of “I Surrender All” by Chanda Rule, who revised the first verse to this:

O Beloved, I surrender
All my heart I freely give
Ever open, ever trusting
Breathing with my Source, I live

Also included are several settings of the ancient liturgical prayer Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy”)—by Hildegard of Bingen, Josquin des Prez, Isaac Wardell, and the monks of Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal (sung in Wolof). Plus the fourteenth-century prayer known as the Anima Christi, with music composed by jazz master Mary Lou Williams using a 6/8 rhythm pattern and a bass clarinet.

Soul of Christ, be my sanctification
Body of Christ, be my salvation
Blood of Christ, fill my veins
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains

Passion of Christ, my comfort be
O good Jesus, listen to me
Lord, have mercy on me

. . .

The entire Lent album by Liturgical Folk is inspired by specific Lenten readings from the Book of Common Prayer. My favorite song is “Willing Minds,” based loosely on the collect (succinct prayer) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The melismatic phrases (in which one syllable is stretched out across multiple successive notes) underscore the flightiness of the human will, our inconstancy, our lack of rootedness.

“Create in Me” by Terry Talbot, covered by The Acappella Company in the video below, is a prayer that’s pieced together from various verses of scripture, starting with Psalm 51:10:

Other favorites, which I’ve featured on the blog before, are Leon Bridges’s “River” [previously] and “Hallelujah” by MaMuse [previously]. “I’m gonna let myself be lifted,” the latter asserts.

As much as Lent is about dying to sin, it’s also about rising with Christ, so resurrection is present throughout—in biblical narrative songs about Jonah, Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, and Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, for example (foretastes of Easter), but also in songs of personal testimony and aspiration. The theme is especially punctuated in the final few selections. “Where All New Life Begins” by John Lucas seeks to define faith, landing on “Faith is laying your body down / And believing new life will come up from the ground.” Carrie Newcomer’s “Lean in Toward the Light” opens with a similar image of buried seeds, which stretch out underneath the cold winter earth as they prepare to sprout (that is, resurrect), their growth enabled by the light; “keep practicing resurrection!” exclaims the second stanza.

The last two songs are centered on Romans 8. “The Spirit of Life” by Psallos is a contemporary setting of verses 1–17 and part of a larger project. For the final, “sending forth” song I’ve chosen “Conquerors” by Hiram Ring, which is quieter, less anthemic, than the previous one, but its chorus rings of Romans 8:37 and makes for a powerful closing:

We are more than conquerors
Heading out into this world
Freed from chains and strengthened now
’Cause his love is all around

Lent playlist cover (Van Gogh)

This is just a sampling of the 150 songs on Art & Theology’s Lent playlist, which I will probably build on indefinitely. Later in the season I plan to publish a different list specifically for Holy Week.

To add the playlist to your account, open the link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”

Playlist cover art: Vincent van Gogh, Rain (detail), Saint-Rémy, 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Advent, Day 3: Womb

LOOK: Pregnant Madonna, 9th century, fresco, crypt of Santa Prassede, Rome

The Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Parturition) is an iconic depiction of the Virgin Mary as pregnant, usually pointing to or cradling her belly, where God is being made flesh. The ninth-century fresco in the crypt of Santa Prassede in Rome is the earliest known depiction of a visibly pregnant Mary. I believe she is flanked by saints Praxedes (Italian Prassede) and Pudentiana (Italian Pudenziana), sisters and martyrs, since the painting is from a chamber that contains their relics. In the most famous Madonna del Parto image, however—by Piero della Francesca, ca. 1457—Mary is attended by two angels.

LISTEN: “In the Virgin’s Womb” by Kaitlyn Ferry | Performed by Sister Sinjin (Kaitlyn Ferry, Elizabeth Duffy, and Elise Erikson Barrett), on Incarnation (2016, re-released 2019)

In the Virgin’s womb He lay;
God made flesh, the mortal babe.
In her body she has held
That which heav’n cannot contain.

In the Virgin’s womb He lay;
Born to die, His flesh a grave.
In her arms she has held
He whom death could not hold down.


For each day of the first week of Advent I am publishing one art-and-song pairing as an invitation for seasonal reflection.

Roundup: CIVA art auction, lament album, Kaphar and “things unseen,” empathy

Several readers have asked if there’s a way to donate to the work of this blog. After much thought I’ve decided to go ahead and add a Donation page, where those who wish to send a small financial gift to support the blog’s upkeep and development can do so through PayPal if they feel so inclined. Thank you!

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CIVA ART AUCTION, November 13–15, 2020: In a few weeks CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) is hosting an online auction of art created and/or donated by CIVA members. The lots comprise a range of media, sizes, and styles—a little something for everyone. It’s a great way to support artists of faith (by supporting CIVA), and to acquire beautiful art for your home!

The first artwork I ever purchased was through a CIVA auction: a linocut by Steve Prince, who has three new works up for bid this year. Sandra Bowden has donated several works from her extensive and esteemed collection of religious art, including an Adoration of the Magi lithograph by the major modern artist Otto Dix and a mola (handmade textile) from Panama, which I’m eyeing. I also noticed 40 Days, Forty Sacraments, a set of gouaches painted by Kari Dunham over the course of Lent one year as a way to rediscover beauty in the ordinary. And a mixed-media piece by Joseph di Bella, whose theme of redemption is underscored by the making of the substrate, which consists of “failed and unfinished works on paper” that “are destroyed, then reformed into new, yet still imperfect sheets.”

Steve Prince, Faith Walk. Linocut, 12 × 9 in. “Shows a woman walking in faith while the ancestors encourage, uplift, and guide her along the way.”

Jehovah Is My Light (Panama)
Jehova es mi luz (Jehovah Is My Light), San Blas Islands, Panama, 1980s. Reverse embroidery, 14 × 17 1/2 in.

di Bella, Joseph_Tree Parables (Generations)
Joseph di Bella, Tree Parables (Generations), 2017. Gouache, dry pigment, and ashes on handmade paper, 38 1/2 × 30 1/2 × 1 1/2 in. (framed).

If you plan on bidding, be sure to register; you will be able to see all the other bids and can set up notifications. And if you don’t win, don’t be discouraged: you can always go to the artist’s website, and there will likely be other works available for purchase there.

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ALBUM: Daughter Zion’s Woe: Produced by Rachel Wilhelm and released last month by Cardiphonia, this new album features thirteen lament songs written, arranged, and performed by women. It will be available on Spotify after Christmas, but until then, all Bandcamp sales benefit Hagar’s Sisters, an organization that serves victims of domestic violence. My favorite song on the album is “The Glory Shall Be Thine” by Christy Danner, a retuning of the late nineteenth-century “Transformed” by F. G. Burroughs (pseudonym for Ophelia Burroughs, later Adams, née Browning); this hymn text is completely new to me, and what a gem! Danner’s music really draws out its poignancy. Other highlights include Eden Wilhelm’s “Lord, Draw Near” (Psalm 88), Sister Sinjin’s “Silence,” and Lo Sy Lo’s “Let It Be So” (Psalm 12).

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EXHIBITION: The Evidence of Things Unseen by Titus Kaphar, October 16–November 28, 2020, former Église du Gesù, Brussels: Titus Kaphar’s [previously] art, which reinterprets traditional Anglo-centric imagery through a Black lens, has grown out of his “spending time in European museums and longing for pictures that looked like they actually made space for individuals that look like me.” In this new exhibition, staged by the Maruani Mercier gallery in a deconsecrated church in Belgium, Kaphar revises Christian paintings by silhouetting, covering in tar, or duct-taping over likenesses of white Jesus, drawing attention to unseen people and narratives. The exhibition’s title is taken from Hebrews 11:1.

Kaphar, Titus_Untitled (Entombment)
Titus Kaphar, Untitled, 2020. Oil and tar on canvas. Photo courtesy Maruani Mercier.

The press release reads: “It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Renaissance art without an exploration of Christianity. While the personal faith of the individual artist varied from devotee to atheist opportunist, the largest patron of the arts was the Church, and Catholic iconography the artist’s lingua franca. . . .

“In The Evidence of Things Unseen, Kaphar utilizes Catholic iconography as a ground on which to explore ideas beyond simple proselytization. Kaphar utilizes his whole vocabulary of formal innovation in this exhibition: canvases aggressively fold, crumple, undulate, and project from the wall, forcing themselves into the space of the viewer. Through Kaphar’s physical interventions, works like Susan and the Elders and Eve exist as bodies transformed into landscape and typography rather than polite easel paintings. In Jesus Noir Kaphar duct-tapes a portrait of a young black man over the face of Christ. Christ’s outstretched right hand, originally pointing to the heavens, now appears as a plea for help. The application of duct tape – a utilitarian material known to be used in all kinds of industrial and household repairs – suggest urgency and impermanence.

“Even though many biblical stories take place in the Middle East and Africa, representations of Christ and his followers are almost always depicted as European. It is not surprising that the devoted attempt to see themselves in the stories of the Bible, and to envision a Christ they can recognize: Christian tradition teaches that mankind was created in God’s own ‘image and likeness.’ And yet, religious paintings from the Renaissance unwittingly oversimplify an understanding of God by excluding a part of his creation. There are no black angels of the Renaissance. The Evidence of Things Unseen is Kaphar’s latest attempt at revision.”

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ANIMATED SHORT: “Brené Brown on Empathy”: In this 2013 video from the RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Katy Davis animates an excerpt from a talk by Professor Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability.” “The Webby Award-winning RSA Shorts animation series provides a snapshot of a big idea, blending voices from the RSA Public Events Programme and the creative talents of illustrators and animators from around the world. It responds to the ever-increasing need for new ideas and inspiration in our busy lives and acts as a jolt of ‘mental espresso’ that will awaken the curiosity in all of us. If you’re interested in the opportunity of animating one of our Shorts, please email your bio and links to your portfolio to shorts@rsa.org.uk.” Other RSA shorts include Jonathan Haidt on Why We’re Convinced We’re Right, David Brooks on Character in a Selfie Age, and David Graeber on the Value of Work.

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PANEL DISCUSSION: “Perspectives on Empathy and the Arts”: In 2017 Roots of Empathy brought together a panel of three—Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); Martha Durdin, chair of the board of trustees of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM); and Raymond Mar, professor of psychology at York University—to discuss the connection between art and empathy and why it’s so important. The conversation is moderated by Mary Ito. I especially appreciated from 42:32 onward.

4:10: Children who take acting lessons are more prosocial and empathetic
5:48: Films and empathy
9:34: Fiction and empathy
12:42: Moonlight (2016)
21:54: Learning from mistakes: Into the Heart of Africa (1989) and point of view
28:38: Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano (2015)
30:37: Forced assimilation of Native people in church-run residential schools
31:18: Can art museums institutionalize empathy?
34:48: How does me empathizing with a character in a book or a painted figure translate to me being empathetic to actual people?
39:05: Superhero comics and movies
41:22: Are we suffering from an empathy deficit?
44:37: Empathy for ideological opponents
46:10: Where does empathy run up against morality/ethics? Are we to empathize with abusers?
46:56: How do we do better through the arts?

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”