Every December M’Clelland compiles photos from that year’s news, showing people affected by natural disasters, violence, and injustice, and overlays them with Advent promises. There’s sometimes a disjunction between image and text that’s grievous and challenging, a reminder that our long-looked-for deliverance is not yet fully here, even though we receive foretastes. The twenty-eight photos M’Clelland gathered from 2022 include throngs of people making their way to Aichi cemetery in Saqqez, Iran, to attend a memorial for twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini, allegedly beaten to death by the country’s religious morality police for not wearing her hijab properly; a police officer helping a child flee artillery on the outskirts of Kyiv, and a baby being born in a bomb shelter; women carrying pans of granite up the side of a mine in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, for meager wages; a woman comforting a neighbor who lost her home to flooding in Tejerias, Venezuela; children playing in a sandstorm at the Sahlah al-Banat camp for displaced people in the countryside of Raqa in northern Syria; children clearing trash from a river in Tonlé Sap, Cambodia; and more.
The sequence of images is a visual prayer of lament and intercession. I appreciate how M’Clelland—via the work of photojournalists, and her sensitive curation—raises awareness about these places of suffering, putting faces to the headlines, but also spotlights moments of empowerment and joy amid that suffering. We are encouraged to seek God’s coming into these situations of distress and to see the subtle ways he does come—for example, through the consoling embrace of a friend, the nurturance of an elder sibling, the protective aid of an officer, a jug of clean water, a child’s glee, or acts of protest.
For photo credits and descriptions, see the Instagram page @alternative_advent. (Start here and scroll left if you’re on your computer, or up if you’re on your phone.) Follow the page to receive new posts in your feed starting next Advent.
SONGS by Rev Simpkins, an Anglican priest and singer-songwriter from Essex previously featured here:
>> “Hallelu! (Love the Outcast)”: This song was originally released on The Antigen Christmas Album (2014) with the byline “Ordinand Simpkins & Brother De’Ath”; it was reissued in 2016 on Rev Simpkins’s album Love Unknown, “a cornucopia of non-LP tracks, studio experiments, ingenious live re-workings, radio sessions, off-the-wall demos, obscure b-sides, & pissings about.” The music video was recorded on an iPhone 4 in the Edward King Chapel at Ripon College Cuddesdon in Oxford. [Listen on Bandcamp]
NEW PAINTING: Tent City Nativity by Kelly Latimore:Kelly Latimore is an Episcopalian iconographer from St. Louis, Missouri, who “rewonders” traditional iconography, especially with an eye to social justice. This Christmas he painted an icon called Tent City Nativity, which shows the Christ child being born in a homeless encampment. A streetlight shines directly over the Holy Family’s tent, like the star of Bethlehem, and neighbors bring gifts for warmth and sustenance: coffees, a blanket, a cup of chili. View close-ups on Instagram, and read the artist’s statement on his website. Proceeds from print and digital sales of the icon will support organizations serving the unhoused in St. Louis.
SONG MEDLEY: YouTube user African Beats spliced together excerpts from three songs performed at a church in Germany at Christmastime by South African singer Siyabonga Cele and an unnamed woman, including “Akekho ofana Nojesu” (There’s No One like Jesus) and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I couldn’t find the name of the last song, and attempts to contact the singer for information were unsuccessful, but it’s in Zulu, as is the first one. Lyrics to the first song, sourced from here, are below.
Akekho ofana Nojesu (There’s no one like Jesus) Akekho ofana naye (There’s no one like him) Akekho ofana Nojesu (There’s no one like Jesus) Akekho ofana naye (There’s no one like him)
Siyahamba siyahamba akekho akekho (I have traveled everywhere, no one) Siyajika siyajika akekho akekho (I have looked everywhere, no one) Siyafuna siyafuna akekho akekho (I have searched everywhere, no one) Akekho afana naye (There is no one like him)
With the feast of the Visitation coming up on May 31, I’ve been thinking about the song Mary sings in Luke 1:46–55 upon meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea following their miraculous conceptions. It’s bold, exultant, and worshipful, oriented around the liberative power of God. As we continue to reel from the string of mass shootings in the US (Tuesday’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was the 212th this year alone), I wonder how Mary’s song might speak to us in this moment—how we, too, might exclaim it with her same fervor and hope, truly believing that God is at work in the world, bringing about justice and healing, even though it is injustice and hurt that so often sound the loudest.
Here is a modern interpretation of the Magnificat by the Rev. M Barclay, cofounder and director of enfleshed, an organization that creates prayers, liturgies, art, meditations, teachings, and other spiritual resources for collective liberation. Written in 2019, it captures the verve of Mary’s words while also drawing out shades of sorrow and adding a petitionary element. Barclay uses the gender-neutral pronoun “They” to refer to the Triune God.
My soul is alive with thoughts of God. What a wonder, Their liberating works. Though the world has been harsh to me, God has shown me kindness, seen my worth, and called me to courage. Surely, those who come after me will call me blessed. Even when my heart weighs heavy with grief, still, so does hope abide with me. Holy is the One who makes it so. From generation to generation, Love’s Mercy is freely handed out; none are beyond the borders of God’s transforming compassion. The power of God is revealed among those who labor for justice. They humble the arrogant. They turn unjust thrones into dust. Their Wisdom is revealed in the lives and truths of those on the margins. God is a feast for the hungry. God is the great redistributor of wealth and resources. God is the ceasing of excessive and destructive production that all the earth might rest. Through exiles and enslavement, famines and wars, hurricanes and gun violence, God is a companion in loss, a deliverer from evil, a lover whose touch restores. This is the promise They made to my ancestors, to me, to all the creatures and creations, now and yet coming, and in this promise, I find my strength. Come, Great Healer, and be with us.
For the first time, this year I plan on publishing short daily posts for the entirety of Lent and for the Octave of Easter, pairing a visual artwork with a piece of music along the seasons’ themes (for an example of this format, see here)—just an FYI of what to expect. I also have several poems lined up. And you might want to check out the Art & Theology Lent Playlist and Holy Week Playlist on Spotify (introduced here and here respectively), which I’ve expanded since last year. I’m very pleased with the Holy Week Playlist in particular.
NEW RESOURCE FOR HOME LITURGIES:The Soil and The Seed Project: Directed by Seth Thomas Crissman of The Walking Roots Band [previously] and with the contributions of a team of artists, writers, and musicians, “The Soil and The Seed Project nurtures faith through music, art, and Little Liturgies for daily and weekly use in the home. These resources help establish new rhythms of faith as together we turn towards Jesus, believing and celebrating the Good News of God’s Love for the whole world.” The project launched in November 2021 with its Advent/Christmas/Epiphany collection. When the project is complete it will consist of four volumes of music (forty-plus songs total—all original, save for a couple of reimagined hymns) and four liturgical booklets that include responsive scripture-based readings, reflection prompts, suggested practices, and an original artwork.
Thanks to a community of generous donors, The Soil and The Seed Project gives away all its content for free, including shipping, to anyone who is interested (individuals, couples, families, churches, etc.); request a copy of the latest music collection and liturgies here. CDs and printed booklets are available only while supplies last (1500 copies have been pressed/printed for this collection), but digital copies of course remain available without limit.
CONVERSATIONS AT CALVIN: Below are two videos (of many!) from the 2022 Calvin Symposium on Worship, which took place earlier this month.
>> “Modern-Day Prophets: How Artists and Activists Expand Public Worship” with Nikki Toyama-Szeto: A writer, speaker, and activist on issues of justice, leadership, race, and gender, Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the executive director of Christians for Social Action and a leading voice for Missio Alliance. Here she is interviewed by preacher and professor Noel Snyder. They discuss the generativity of imagination, and its invitation to displacement; the connection between corporate worship and public witness; the movement of the Holy Spirit outside church walls; “political” and “pastoral” as classifications that differ from group to group; embracing messiness; and what pastors can learn from artists and activists.
A few quotes from Toyama-Szeto that stood out to me:
“Part of what we’re trying to do at Christians for Social Action is stir the Christian imagination for what a fuller followership of Jesus looks like in a more just society. The word ‘imagination,’ and I would say specifically Christian imagination, I think of as the dream that God dreams for his people and his creation. What does it mean to be oriented toward the dream that God is dreaming? Another word for it is shalom—the full flourishing of all his creation and all his people. And if you look at the gap between where we are today and what that dream is, that gap is imagination. How is it that we get from here, the broken world we see . . . how do we press in and lean into the dreams that God dreams for his people and for his world?”
“For me, I have found artists and prophets—those who are agitating for justice—are ones who help dislodge me from everyday things I take for granted, and those assumptions, and they help me to dream new and bigger dreams.”
“The pursuit of justice is the declaration of God’s character in the public square.”
Smith shares his frustration that often the only Christians who endeavor to learn other languages and develop cultural intelligence and appreciation are those who are preparing to be missionaries in a foreign country, and they do it only for the purpose of missional effectiveness.
If you take one piece of theology [i.e., evangelism] and try and make that the bit that’s about cultural difference, that puts distortions into the conversation. . . . You might want to think about mission, but you might also want to think about what it means to be made in the image of God. Does that mean everyone’s the same, or does it mean everyone has responsibility for shaping culture and we might all do it in different ways, and you have to make space for that? We might need to think about the cross. We might need to think about God’s embrace of us and how we embrace each other. We might need to think about love of neighbor. We might need to think about the body of Christ and the makeup of the early church. . . . You might have to visit a whole bunch of different theological places to get a composite picture rather than saying this is the doctrine that somehow solves cultural difference for us.
I was also struck by Smith’s discussion of how cultural difference can help us read the scriptures in a new way (see 19:38ff.). He gives an example from In the Land of Blue Burqas, where Kate McCord, an American, describes her experience reading the Bible with Muslim women from Afghanistan, and particularly how they taught her a very different interpretation of John 4, the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Wow.
VISUAL COMMENTARY ON SCRIPTURE: The Transfiguration: In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this Sunday, the last Sunday in the Epiphany season, is Transfiguration Sunday, giving us a vision with which to enter Lent. (Other traditions celebrate Jesus’s transfiguration on August 6.) In this video from the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash discuss this New Testament event through three visual artworks: a fifteenth-century icon by Theophanes the Greek, which shows the “uncreated light” revealed to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor; a fresco by Fra Angelico from the wall of a friar’s cell in Florence, where Jesus’s pose foreshadows his suffering on the cross; and a contemporary light installation by the seminary-educated American artist Dan Flavin, comprising fluorescent light tubes in the shape of a mandorla. Brilliant!
CIVA TRAVELING EXHIBITION: Again + Again, curated by Ginger Henry Geyer with Asher Imtiaz: “A photography exhibition that invites recurring and fresh contemplation of the ordinary and extraordinary through the seasons of the Christian liturgical calendar,” sponsored by Christians in the Visual Arts. The show will be on view at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis from February 26 to March 26 and is available for rental in North America after that. I saw it at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin in November at the CIVA biennial and was impressed! It is accompanied by a beautifully designed catalog that pairs each photograph with a poem, several of which were written specifically for the exhibition and which respond directly to a given photo.
One of my favorite art selections is Mount Tabor, June 2017 by Michael Winters, the director of arts and culture at Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. “Mount Tabor . . . is where the transfiguration of Christ is thought to have occurred,” Winters writes. “I stood viewing that scene in 2017. It looked so normal. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to punch holes in this photograph, but I think it’s because I wanted to be able to see through this ‘normal’ landscape to the glory of the transfigured Christ—which is to say, I wanted to see reality.”
Ears to the Ground Family is a group of friends in their early thirties, making music together in and around their hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Minimalist and totally acoustic, they sing songs of hope, sustaining faith, and resistance to oppression and empire. Their stylistic influences include the spirituals, soul, hip-hop, R&B, folk/Americana, chant, Taizé, and Anabaptist hymns, especially from the Mennonite tradition, to which they belong.
The band formed in 2010 and has “always preferred the outdated and peculiar model of the elusive traveling troubadour,” sharing their music in small settings, unplugged, locally or regionally. Its members first met during the Petrol-Free Jubilee, an annual two-week bicycle-powered music and art tour of the mid-Atlantic, which they went on to participate in as a group for seven years. Its purpose was “to promote peace, social justice, and a healthy planet.”
“We biked two hundred to three hundred miles with ten to twenty people on average, often several bands or musicians with us at a time, and our regular stops and show locations included a lot of farms, community centers, and Catholic Worker houses,” band member Nichole Barrows told me. “Just imagine twenty people rolling down Main Street in your city in the middle of a hot summer afternoon on their bikes, with drums and guitars in tow, ringing their bike bells and singing at the top of their voices! I mean, it was like summer camp on wheels; we brought the show with us!”
This small-scale approach and casual touring schedule, Barrows said, “enables us to root ourselves deeply within our home community and invest in the valuable work that inspires our music.” That valuable work includes church ministry, community organizing, farming, and outdoor education.
In June 2017 Ears to the Ground Family recorded eight original songs (written between 2007 and 2013) plus a traditional African American spiritual, but jobs, family, and other projects prevented them from being able to mix, master, and self-release until recently. Finally, on December 18, 2020, their debut album, Full Moon in June, came into the world, making their music available to a much wider audience for the first time.
“It’s funny,” Barrows said, “some people talk about ‘slow music’ (you know, slow food, etc.) to describe homegrown, independently released local music. But we’re so ‘slow’ that it takes us about ten years to release our first album!”
Infused with prophetic imagination, Full Moon in June denounces the forces of evil at work in the world on a grand scale—things like war, environmental exploitation, predatory lending practices, and the prison industrial complex—and casts a beautiful vision of all things new under Christ. Stop participating in that which is destructive, the album invites, and join instead with the creative work of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). These songs awaken my enthusiasm for the promised future of all that is and for our journey toward it, sowing seeds of Christ’s kingdom all along the way.
An exploration of “Almond Blossom”
My favorite song on Full Moon in June is the first one, “Almond Blossom” by Dimitris Campos, which uses the image of a tree to signal abundance and renewal. “There’s an almond blossoming in Jerusalem,” it opens. Almond blossoms are a harbinger of springtime, and in fact Israel’s almond trees are the first to bloom each year. The song’s second line, “The buds on a fig tree becoming tender again,” evoke the recurring comparison of God’s people to a fig tree in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Hosea 9:10; Jer. 8:13; Jer. 24) as well as the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, a symbolic act of judgment against those who reject his ways. The image here, though, is of a withered fig tree becoming healthy and vibrant once again.
The lyrics go on to note how the trees and other parts of the natural world appear to worship God; the “mountains are clapping their hands” (cf. Psa. 98:8; Isa. 55:12), and the trees reach toward the heavens. Humanity, by contrast, turns in on itself, and rather than living into the flourishing it was created for, invents new means of destruction—bombs dropped from drones, for example, leaving orphans in their wake.
In the song, Campos recalls a visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, the horror of families posing happily for photos in front of bombers, fighter jets, missiles, military avionics, and other tools of combat, celebrating national might. Campos contrasts the heaviness of those metal death-traps with the light feeling of floating on the “river of life” (cf. Rev. 22:1), and their sterility with a fructifying olive vine, delicately tended (cf. Rom. 11:11–24).
Empires fall—Egypt, Rome; America one day will too, and another will rise in its place. “I proclaim that Jesus, he will decide / If it is that Rome is on I-95”—the highway that the US capital is located off of. Earthly kingdoms that put their trust in arsenals and that deal in death rather than life may be in for a divine toppling. The same goes for corrupt systems.
Jesus himself said as much. For example, in Mark 13:2, he says regarding the Jewish temple complex, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” It’s because the religious establishment at the time had become oppressive and was rejecting Jesus as the Christ. They were trusting in all their rules and learned interpretations of scripture while failing to see the plain revelation of God right in front of them.
The penultimate stanza of “Almond Blossom” is excerpted from “Canticle of the Turning” by Rory Cooney, a paraphrase of Mary’s Magnificat, which is one of the Bible’s most radical songs:
From the halls of the power to the fortress tower Not a stone will be left upon a stone Let the king beware, for your justice tears Every tyrant from his throne
The song concludes with a reprise of the first two lines, circling back to the image of trees and their eschatological (end times) resonances. In Matthew 24:32–33, Jesus tells his disciples, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates.”
“Almond Blossom” is a clever interweaving of biblical text allusions, spanning Genesis to Revelation, that calls America to account for its warmongering while inviting her citizens into the beautiful, lasting, life-giving way of Christ.
The following poem from the book of Isaiah, about the messianic age, was resounding in my mind as I listened to this song:
For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
All but two of the songs on Full Moon in June were written (or cowritten) by Dimitris Campos. Half Greek and half Peruvian, he was raised in a Latino culture in the United States, which itself has mixed Spanish, Indigenous, and African influences. His musical compositions are informed by this background.
“Recession Don’t Bother Me,” subtitled “No te compliques la vida” (Don’t complicate your life), reflects on a mother’s words of advice regarding not staking your identity on material things, and not climbing over others to get ahead. It was released with this statement:
We are releasing this album in the midst of the historic COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has left record numbers of people without work and we realize that in this moment, working-class people are suffering. With that in mind, we want to note that our song “Recession Don’t Bother Me” (which was written during the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008) is not saying “the recession don’t affect me,” because as the current pandemic has shown us, the circumstances and effects of the current situation do indeed have profound consequences for us all. Nor is this song saying that we are insulated from the economic effects of recession because of our wealth or privilege—although we acknowledge that in this current context, many people have had it much harder than we have. What this song is saying is that our current destructive and dehumanizing economy must, one day, collapse. And that we hope to be among those who welcome and rejoice at an exodus from an Egypt to a promised land, even if it means a journey through the desert to get there. We are praying for providence for all those suffering during these deeply trying times.
In downtown Harrisonburg, amidst hip college-town cafés, sits the Rockingham County Jail, right across the street from the courthouse. At certain times of day, men in jumpsuits and chains are very visibly marched to and from these locations. Disgusted by this flagrancy and following the arrest of one of his undocumented friends, Campos wrote “Prison Cells.” It’s a condemnation of America’s for-profit prison system and retributive (as opposed to restorative) model of justice. How does our lust for punishment cohere with Jesus’s blessing on the merciful (Matt. 5:7) and the apostle Paul’s insistence that “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5)? We teach our kids to forgive offenses and to let go of grudges, and yet our criminal law teaches the opposite. Lord, have mercy.
Fourth up on the album is a new interpretation of the spiritual “Sheep, Sheep, Don’t You Know the Road?” from the Georgia Sea Islands, popularized in the 1960s by folk singer and African American music preservationist Bessie Jones, who learned it from her formerly enslaved grandfather. Ears to the Ground Family has expressed the indebtedness of their work to “centuries of creative Black resistance against slavery and oppression,” of which this song is just one example. Its lyrics describe the road of faith as one of pain but also bridges, a road where “there’s no price tag” (cf. Isa. 55:1) and “the sword’s beat down” (cf. Isa. 2:3–4).
On this track the djembe and shekere are played by Jay Beck and Tevyn East, two of the lead organizers of the Carnival de Resistance. “A traveling carnival, village, and school for social change bridging the worlds of art, activism and faith,” this organization seeks to throw off sanitized pieties and “provide a raucous expression of grief and longing and hope for Creation.”
“Painter” is a parable that shows how indulging in sin cuts us off from ourselves and can inhibit us from showcasing God’s glory.
“Moneditas” (Coins), which Campos wrote with Ana Maria Febres, is a Spanish-language song about the emptiness of riches. It echoes Matthew 6:19–20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
The whimsical “Time, Time, Time,” with its coffee-mug and glass-bottle percussion, seems to me to be a celebration of the unfolding of time just as it is. May we not wish for time to move any faster or slower, but instead appreciate the now and live with an openness to whatever’s next.
“Walnut Textures,” by Campos and Lightning Lucas, encourages a closer relationship with the natural world. It remarks with regret how we have such a strong desire to explore the far reaches of the universe, and yet many of us hardly know the beauty and wonders of our own planet, or even our immediate environs—or if we do, we don’t care enough to protect them. Instead of stewarding nature we squander and abuse it, building highways (dirty paved “rivers”) through forests and then packing cars onto them, increasing air pollution and contributing to global warming. This dominating stance over God’s creation is vanity, and God urges us toward a better way—one of friendship with creation, in which we recognize our mutual groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:22–23) and take up our responsibility as caretakers, which includes adopting sustainable environmental practices.
Spending time in nature is refreshing and even liberating, a chance to experience the givenness of life. Living in right relationship with her now is great practice for the age to come, when all will be reconciled.
The last song, “Shade of the Most High,” was written by Nichole Barrows amid her grief following the death of her mother. It was inspired by the promise in Psalm 91 that we will find rest in the “shadow” of the Almighty God. She says,
I found great comfort in this image of grief as a dark place where God can still find us and bring us rest, because although we feel that we don’t deserve the bad things that are happening to us, we can trust that we are still in his “shade.” And this gift of trust in God’s faithfulness helps us not to fear disease or darkness or even death. I sang these words over myself that year [of my mother’s decline] and I sing them over you now: “With a hope like this, we are fearless, and with a love like this, I will not despair.”
Loss is wrenching and often unexplainable, but it can also be an occasion “to find new life, to find new eyes,” and to lean all the more firmly on the One who bears our sorrows in love.
Already and not yet
When I was talking to Barrows, she expressed emphatically one of the great paradoxes in Christian teaching: “that the kingdom of God is not yet here and that we are together longing for Christ to come make all things new, and also that He is already here, now, on this earth, in this place.” She mentioned how Ears to the Ground Family wishes to affirm not just the spiritual elements of faith (which, I will add, are the central preoccupation of the vast majority of faith-based music) but the physical elements as well, “such as care for the earth and the peace witness and the works of mercy.” This commitment is certainly reflected on their album, which is centered on holistic liberation. I love how it so joyously embraces the broadness of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is not just for individual souls but also for bodies and communities and for the whole created world—presently as well as futurely!
Full Moon in Juneis available for digital download or as a CD in a cardboard sleeve with handprinted letters (produced by Campos’s vintage, treadle-powered letterpress) and stamped with handmade rubber stamp art. The latter option is a limited edition of 200.
VISUAL COMMENTARIES: Elijah’s Ascent by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest contribution to the Visual Commentary on Scripture was published this month. It’s a mini-exhibition on 2 Kings 2:1–12, featuring a seventeenth-century Russian icon, a 1944 painting by African American artist William H. Johnson, and a 1985 painting (a Jewish chapel commission) by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz. (For more context on the Katz painting, see here.)
NATIONAL MOURNING:Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell four hundred times Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 400,000 lives lost from COVID in the United States thus far—each ring representing one thousand dead. I spent the thirty-eight-minute livestream lamenting this enormous loss, praying for all those who are grieving and for patients and health care workers, and pleading with God for an end to this virus.
The origami paper doves you see in the video are part of the Les Colombes installation by Michael Pendry [previously], erected in December in the cathedral’s nave to symbolize hope and the Holy Spirit.
MUSIC VIDEO: “For the Sake of Old Times” (Auld Lang Syne): Directed by Tyler Jones of the narrative studio 1504, this short film premiered December 30, 2020, by NPR. “From the pews of a church where white deacons once refused to seat African Americans, a group of Black singers in Alabama reminds us why preserving our memories of this historic year is vital—even if we’d rather just leave 2020 behind.” [HT: ImageUpdate]
“To me the piece is a personal encouragement going into the future,” Jones says, “that we hopefully strive to work together for a kinder future, especially at a time where we are so distanced.” Read about the making of the film at https://n.pr/3n6d8Ct.
ARTICLE: “On the Gifts of Street Art” by Jason A. Goroncy, Zadok: The Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for “Best Theological Article” to Jason Goroncy [previously] for this piece. (How cool that it won in the theology category!) Like all art, street art can function as a form of civic dialogue, protest, play, hope, remembrance, etc., but Goroncy discusses how some of its particular qualities uniquely position it to perform those functions: its (usually) unsanctioned and interventionist nature, its fragility and impermanence, its celebration and development of culture, its inseparability from place, and its redefinitions of proprietorship. [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]
“Among the many gifts that street artists offer,” Goroncy writes, “is a proclivity to bear witness to how things are and not merely to how they might appear to be. Such a proclivity involves a telling of the truth about those largely-untampered-with and untraversed spaces of our urban worlds, about what is present but underexposed or disregarded; and even, as Auden hints, to lead with ‘unconstraining voice’ the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous. Such a proclivity is also a form of urban spirituality. It can even be a form of public theology.”
Sometimes we rush to judgment of artworks that at first glance seem dull and conventional. We assume they have nothing to show us. But if we were to look more closely, we might find something unexpected. Even subtly subversive.
Such is the case with The Nativity and its companion piece, The King and the Shepherd, which were commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones in 1887 for the chancel of Saint John’s Church in Torquay, England. Seven by ten feet each, they hung on the north and south walls for just over a hundred years before being sold by the church in 1989 to pay for a new roof. (Copies were hung in their places.) Musical theater composer—and Victorian art collector!—Andrew Lloyd Webber bought them and, in 1997, donated them to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where I saw them earlier this year.
The Nativity shows Mary reclining outdoors on a rustic bed that resembles a bier with her newborn son, Jesus, both wrapped in shroud-like garments. Her partner, Joseph, who has his cloaked back to the viewer, sits on the ground reading a manuscript in Gothic script; the text is indiscernible, but I presume it’s meant to be the scriptures that prophesy the birth of a savior or his sacrificial death. Three angels stand to the side holding symbols of the passion: a crown of thorns, a chalice, and a jar of myrrh, a traditional burial spice. The painting, therefore, links the entrance of Jesus onto the world stage to his ultimate saving act on the cross.
This foreshadowing approach was not new in Nativity art. But in addition to gesturing toward the redemption from sin that Jesus would bring, the painting also quotes from a community lament psalm in which God’s people cry out for deliverance from those in authority who lie and manipulate. Propter miseriam inopum et gemitum pauperis nunc exsurgam dicit Dominus, the Latin inscription reads, which translates, “Because of the misery of the poor and the groaning of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD” (Psalm 12:5a). When God’s people are oppressed, God is aroused to action, and Burne-Jones’s choice of this atypical scripture text for a Nativity painting reminds us of the sociopolitical context of Jesus’s birth, which involved Roman occupation of Israel and a despotic ruler so obsessed with power that he mandated the extermination of Jewish male babies in Bethlehem, thinking he would quash the threat of usurpation. This is the reality into which Jesus was born. And though he didn’t deliver Israel from Rome during his lifetime, he did launch a new “kingdom” and declare a jubilee (Luke 4:16–21).
The biblical inscription speaks not only to Jesus’s day but also to contemporary times, which were marked by high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class. It’s “a subtle allusion to the social miseries of Victorian Britain,” says Louise Lippincott, curator for the Carnegie at the time of acquisition. She speculates that Burne-Jones intended the painting “as his public statement, albeit a muted one, on 19th-century social horrors. . . . It is quite likely that he was thinking of reports of the bestial living conditions of the London poor that were appearing in the press in the early 1880s.” In 1886, 1887, and 1888, as Burne-Jones was planning and executing the painting, violent strikes and riots were going on in London to protest economic inequality. As people starved, those in power continued to fatten themselves with apparent disregard. The incorporation into this humble scene of a divine vow from the Psalms, where God states his commitment to the poor, expresses hope that God will again arise to deliver from affliction those who trust in him.
The King and the Shepherd extends this critique of the wealth gap by showing the two titular figures—one rich, the other poor—approaching the Christ child as equals. As was and still is common, Burne-Jones combines Matthew’s account of the magi with Luke’s account of the shepherds, showing both as welcome participants in the same event, but uniquely, he chooses only one figure to represent each group. (Traditionally, three magi attend the birth, along with a nonstandard number of shepherds.) An angel leads each traveler by the hand, reminding them to keep their voices low so as not to wake the sleeping infant.
“The pairings visually suggest the equality, in the face of divinity, between the wealthy king and the humble peasant,” reads the museum wall text. “In the context of the enormous social inequalities rife in Victorian England, this message smacked of social and political radicalism.” The Latin inscription—Transeamus usque Bethleem et videamus hoc verbum quod factum est quod fecit Dominus [et ostendit nobis]—comes from the New Testament description of the journey of the shepherds. “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem,” they say, “and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us” (Luke 2:15b).
God chose to reveal his Son’s birth not only to bookish scholars or, as tradition has it, royalty, but also to a bunch of blue-collar laborers. The shepherds’ and kings’ mutual presence at Christ’s bedside was only the beginning of the reconciliation across lines of division that Christ came to enact.
EVERYPSALM: Over the next three years, indie-folk duo Poor Bishop Hooper (whom I blurbed here) will be writing and releasing one biblical psalm setting per week, sequentially from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150. And they are very graciously making all these songs available to download for free! They’ve already released the first three, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them. To sign up to receive a weekly download link in your inbox, visit https://www.everypsalm.com/. You may also want to consider giving to the project.
PHOTO SERIES: Un-Daily Bread by Gregg Segal: For his latest project, US-based photographer Gregg Segal has been photographing Venezuelan immigrants with the entirety of their belongings lying around them. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization that Segal is collaborating with, the number of people in Venezuela forced to leave their homes due to violence, insecurity, threats, and/or lack of essential services keeps increasing, with more than 4.6 million refugees and migrants from the country living around the world, mostly in South America. In the photograph below, you can see a young mother and her two children surrounded by a few changes of clothes, a doll, a baby bottle, medicine, diapers, arepas, and a Bible. The three traveled over six hundred miles from Maracaibo to Bogotá, hitching rides and catching buses.
Un-Daily Bread it is an offshoot of Segal’s Daily Bread series, in which he photographed images of kids from around the world surrounded by what they eat each day.
LITURGY: Impelled by the various antagonisms that have been on the rise both domestically and abroad, Aaron Niequist has written and compiled a ten-page Liturgy for Peacemakers, which includes a call to worship, two songs, a confession of sin and assurance of pardon, scripture readings, and prayers, including one minute of holy space each to pray for a global enemy, a local enemy, and a personal enemy. The liturgy, which focuses on shaping us to be instruments of God’s peace in the world, is free for you to use in your living rooms and/or churches, and to adapt in any way you wish.
EXHIBITION: Andy Warhol: Revelation, October 20, 2019–February 16, 2020, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh: Ever since reading Jane Daggett Dillenberger’s illuminating book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol(1998), I’ve been interested to explore more deeply the Byzantine Catholicism of Andy Warhol and how it influenced his art. (I was surprised to learn, for example, that although he had a complicated relationship with Christianity, Warhol regularly attended Mass, wore a cross around his neck, carried a pocket missal and rosary, and prayed daily with his mother in Old Slavonic over the forty years he lived with her.) A pioneer of the pop art movement best known for his silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol also made giant cross paintings as well as screen prints of famous Renaissance religious paintings in full or in detail (by Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci)—especially The Last Supper, his last and largest series. Jesus is surely a part of American pop culture, so Warhol’s use of such imagery is not all that unusual in light of his larger oeuvre. But is there anything more to this choice of subject?
I’ll be driving to Pittsburgh next weekend, where Warhol grew up, to see an exhibition of his religious works curated by José Carlos Diaz from the Andy Warhol Museum’s permanent collection. I’ll also be attending a lecture at the museum given by Jonathan A. Anderson, titled “Religion in an Age of Mass Media: Andy Warhol’s Catholicism.” (It’s January 25 at 6 p.m. Update: Watch the lecture on YouTube.) In and around Pittsburgh is also where Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) spent most of his life, so I’ll be visiting a few key spots related to him as well!
EXHIBITION: Scott Avett: INVISIBLE, October 12, 2019–February 2, 2020, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh: “Internationally recognized as co-founder of the band The Avett Brothers, Scott Avett has been a working artist, focusing on painting and printmaking, since he earned a BFA in studio art from East Carolina University in 2000. But until now this art-making part of his life has been a secret and a more solitary creative pursuit in comparison to his life as a musician, singer, and songwriter. This solo exhibition features Avett’s large-scale oil paintings. These are psychologically charged and emotionally intense portraits focused on his family and himself—often intimate, vulnerable, and sometimes uncomfortably truthful portrayals. Like his songs, Avett’s paintings speak to universal issues of spirituality and struggle, love and loss, heartache and joy, as well as more personal stories of career, family, and living in the South.”
As an Avett Brothers fan, I made it a point to see this exhibition in December when I was visiting family for Christmas, and actually, it exceeded my expectations. It was endearing to see portraits of Avett’s three children tumbling around, swinging, engaged in deep thought at the dinner table, playacting as monsters, wailing—and he and his wife in the middle of it all, experiencing both the joys and stresses of parenting. My favorite pieces were probably the companion paintings Motherhood and Fatherhood, which show the messiness of those callings.
Fatherhood is one of several self-portraits in the show. The one that’s most prominently displayed, right at the entrance, is Black Mouse, White Mouse, which references Leo Tolstoy’s personal essay “A Confession,” about an existential crisis. In it Tolstoy recounts a fable of a man who falls into a well with a dragon at the bottom. On his way down he grabs hold of a branch growing out of the wall, but it’s being nibbled by two mice, and his fall to death is imminent. This scenario is representative of where we all find ourselves: finite beings in an infinite world, dangling over the abyss. There are four possible ways to respond, says Tolstoy: ignorance, epicureanism, suicide, or hanging on to life. He thinks suicide the most logical but says he lacks the nerve to carry it out.
Tolstoy then launches into metaphysical musings, grappling with the question of God’s existence, when suddenly, he has an epiphany that “God is Life,” and that “I live, really live, only when I feel Him and seek Him.” He continues, “I returned to the belief in that Will which produced me and desires something of me. I returned to the belief that the chief and only aim of my life is to be better, i.e. to live in accord with that Will. And I returned . . . to a belief in God . . .”
Avett’s spirituality isn’t overt in any of the paintings, but it’s been interesting to hear him open up more about that aspect of himself in artist talks and interviews. In an October talk, for example, he said, “I’m a true believer that every single one of us is a beloved son or daughter of God, period. I know that for certain. And because of that, this [pointing to himself] isn’t the only bright shining person in this room. It’s insane how true that is. . . . I’ve just always lived like that—like someone was watching. It was God the whole time; he was right there with me and in me, the whole time. When I was younger it was so much easier to access that. And now growing older, it’s about opening up to access that again.”
SONG: “Offertory” by John Ness Beck, performed by Future:Past: Micah 6:8 has, for me, functioned as what some would call a “life verse”: a guiding principle that I return to again and again to reorient myself to the divine will. I long to be the kind of person the verse describes: one who does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God. Thanks to Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship, I’ve just been made aware of a beautiful musical setting of this passage, which happens to be one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for February 2 this year.
“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The music was composed in the second half of the twentieth century by John Ness Beck and was adapted for TTBB (tenor-tenor-bass-bass) by Craig Courtney—performed here a cappella by Josh Adams, Davis Gibson, Jon Kok, and Matthew Reiskytl of the Christian music and media ministry Future:Past. To purchase sheet music for “Offertory” (available in SATB, SSA, and TTBB voicings, with keyboard and optional string quartet), click here.
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
The illuminated manuscript page above tells visually, in three sequential strips, the parable of the rich man (“Dives”) and Lazarus. (The personal name Dives is not given in the scripture text but is traditionally used as shorthand for the rich man, as dives is Latin for “rich.”) The top register shows Lazarus, a sick homeless man, dying at Dives’s door; the middle, Lazarus’s soul being carried off to paradise by two angels and seated in Abraham’s bosom; and the bottom, Dives’s soul being carried off to hell by two devils and tortured.
This is one of four full-page miniatures that preface the Gospel of Luke in the Codex Aureus (“Golden Book”) of Echternach, a Vulgate edition of the four Gospels produced at the Benedictine Abbey of Echternach in Luxembourg in the eleventh century shortly after the Ottonian dynasty came to an end. It is a preeminent example of the Ottonian style.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 21, cycle C, click here.
In a recent conversation, poet and novelist Joy Kogawa said, “We need to see each other’s eyes, and see each other through each other’s eyes.” Art, from all disciplines, can help us do that. Art can awaken our social conscience and breed empathy and understanding. It can serve as a vehicle for lament, a practice of voicing suffering before God. It can also widen our imaginations—that is, in part, our ability to think up creative solutions to problems both big and small. Here are just a few recent justice-oriented art projects that inspire me.
CLASSIC SONG REVISED: Earlier this month Liz Vice, Paul Zach, and Orlando Palmer took Woody Guthrie’s folk classic “This Land Is Your Land” and, gathering at Trinity Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, revised the lyrics and tone to project lament over some of America’s more troubling legacies. The lyrical turn happens in the fourth line: where we would expect “To the New York islands,” we get “To the Texas border,” turning our mind from the country’s beauty to its broken systems that prevent us from sharing abundance with our southern neighbors fleeing violence. The song continues to plot a path through various places of historical and present-day suffering in the US, the three stanzas compactly addressing immigration; slavery, the “New Jim Crow,” and police brutality against black people; and the forcible expulsion of Native Americans from their ancestral territories, as well as massacres and other forms of colonialist violence.
This land is your land
This land is my land
To the Texas border
Through the Juarez mountains
With the migrant caravans
This land was made for you and me
This land is your land
This land is my land
From the piers of Charleston
To the fields of cotton
From the crowded prisons
To the streets of Ferguson
This land was made for you and me
This land is your land
This land is my land
From the Jamestown landing
To Lakota Badlands
From the Trail of Tears to
This land was made for you and me
Most people don’t know it, but Guthrie actually wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a protest against the vast income inequalities in the US. Two of its original verses, the radical ones, were nixed when it came time to record (it was the McCarthy era, after all); these referenced breadlines and tall walls with “No Trespassing” signs. In its original form, the song celebrated America as a place of natural abundance—forests and streams and wheat fields under “endless skyways”—while lamenting the scarcity that many Americans experience. The refrain, therefore, was more loaded. Learn more about the song’s history at https://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land.
SEESAWS AT THE BORDER: On July 27, Oakland-based creative duo Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello installed three bright pink teeter-totters through the slats of a section of the US-Mexico border wall that separates the neighboring communities of Sunland Park, New Mexico and Colonia Anapra, Mexico. Citizens on both sides were invited to ride this playground essential with a cross-border partner—a whimsical way to engage the other. As the creators said, it enabled people to literally feel the weight of humanity on the other side, using the wall as a fulcrum. The installation lasted forty minutes before it was dismantled (without incident).
I love this idea of play as protest—teeter-tottering as an act of creative defiance. What was enacted July 27 at the wall was a theater of the absurd, something that Rael, an architect, is especially drawn to in his practice. He actually conceived of Teeter-Totter Wall ten years ago, publishing a conceptual drawing in the book Borderwall as Architecture (University of California Press, 2009), along with other outlandish design possibilities for turning the wall into something that brings together rather than divides—these include its use as a massive xylophone played with weapons of mass percussion, a bookshelf feature inside a binational library, and more. Through these humorous proposals, Rael “reimagin[es] design as both an undermining and reparative measure,” as Dr. Marilyn Gates put it.
In his 2018 TED Talk, Rael discusses how the wall, meant to separate, has actually served to unite people in some instances. He mentions, for example, games of Wall y Ball, a variation on volleyball that was established at the wall in 1979, and binational yoga classes. I’ve heard of the Eucharist being celebrated jointly through the slats, and picnics hosted—such as the one organized in Tecate by the French artist JR on October 8, 2017: families passed plates of food between the bars, and musicians on both sides played the same songs.
This picnic was the capstone of a month-long installation by JR featuring a monumental photograph of a Mexican toddler named Kikito, peering over the border wall into California from Tecate. (The photograph was held up with scaffolding.)
Shared play, shared food, shared music, shared sacrament—these are such breathtakingly beautiful countermeasures to separatism. The world needs more imaginative acts like these.
VIRTUAL REALITY INSTALLATION: This was in DC last year and I missed it! A VR experience directed by the multi-Academy-Award-winning Alejandro G. Iñárritu, known for the films Birdman, The Revenant, Biutiful, and Babel, and shot by (also multiple-award-winning) cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. “Carne y Arenais a six-and-a-half-minute solo experience that employs state-of-the-art technology to create a multi-narrative space with human characters. . . . Based on true accounts from Central American and Mexican refugees, [it] blurs and binds together the superficial lines between subject and bystander, allowing individuals to walk in a vast space and live a fragment of a refugee’s personal journey.”
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” . . .
Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for you shall inherit all the nations!
—Psalm 82:1–4, 8
Verses 2–4 are God speaking to his court, whereas the final verse is the psalmist Asaph speaking to God in prayer. The identity of “the gods” (elohim) in this psalm is much debated among scholars, with some thinking it refers to human rulers and others thinking it an assembly of spiritual beings to whom God delegates authority. Either way, God is upset that these judges have been neglecting justice in failing to uphold the cause of orphans, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and other marginalized groups.
SONG: “Rise Up” | Words and music by Isaac Wardell, with the verse melody based on a melody by Evan Mazunik | Performed by Lauren Goans, on Lamentations by Bifrost Arts (2016)
For the lonely and forgotten,
for the weary and distressed;
for the refugee and orphan,
and for all who are oppressed;
for the stranger who is pleading
while insulted and despised:
Will You rise? Will You rise?
Rise up! Rise up!
The earth will fear the Lord
when You avenge the poor.
May Your kingdom come . . .
O rise up!
Hear how Rachel, she is weeping.
How she will not be consoled.
And the children in our keeping,
are their bodies bought and sold?
And the watchman, he is sleeping.
Do You see them with Your eyes?
Will You rise? Will You rise?
Rise up! Rise up!
The earth will fear the Lord
when You avenge the poor.
May Your kingdom come . . .
O rise up!
As Your will is done in heaven,
Let it now be done below.
Let Your daily bread be given,
Let Your kingdom come and grow.
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us, we cry.
Will You rise? Will You rise?
Rise up! Rise up!
The earth will fear the Lord
when You avenge the poor
and bare Your holy arm
to keep them safe from harm.
May Your kingdom come . . .
O rise up!
Several times throughout scripture, God’s people call on him to “Rise up!” (or, as some translations have it, “Arise!”) against oppression, against evildoers. In other words: Move; take action.
Arise, LORD, in your anger;
rise up against the rage of my enemies.
Awake, my God; decree justice. (Ps 7:6)
Rise up, LORD, confront them, bring them down;
with your sword rescue me from the wicked. (Ps 17:13)
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love. (Ps 44:23–26)
Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace;
may the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, and defend your cause . . . (Ps 74:21–22a)
The whole biblical story is about God rising up again and again in defense of the weak. On more than one occasion the prophet Isaiah uses the language of “rise up” to express God’s activism:
The LORD longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him! (Isa 30:18)
In October 2014, Palestinian artist Iyad Sabbah installed the seven-piece clay sculpture group Worn Out on the beach of Shuja’iyya, a Gaza neighborhood that was decimated that summer by Israeli military forces. Commemorating the victims of the Gaza war, it depicts a family fleeing the rubble of what used to be home. The figures are all flecked with red pigment, signifying blood, and have an eroded appearance. They stagger on through the detritus left by three days of shelling, in desperate need of deliverance.
As I view photos of this installation set amid the ravages of war, by a man who is himself from Gaza, I feel helpless to redress the wrongs suffered. And so I lean on this ancient prayer of beseeching, echoed so beautifully in the above song by Isaac Wardell: Rise up, God. Do not turn away from our misery. In your love, rescue us. For those displaced by war, forced to become strangers in a strange land: rise up. For those who have lost loved ones, homes, limbs, livelihoods to violence: rise up. Put a stop to the unjust whose policies and actions deal in death rather than life.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 10, cycle C, click here.