Advent roundup: Tsh Oxenreider, Lanecia Rouse Tinsley, and more

Advent is just around the corner, and here is some topical content for the season. (Much more to come!)

PODCAST EPISODES:

>> “On Journeying: Travel, Traditions, and Turning to the Psalms with Tsh Oxenreider,” Sacred Ordinary Days, December 22, 2020: Host Jenn Giles Kemper interviews author, travel guide, and fellow podcaster Tsh Oxenreider about her book Shadow and Light: A Journey into Advent. The liturgical calendar is a gift, not a burden, Oxenreider says; it provides scaffolding for our year and connects Christians to one another across time and place, in addition, of course, to promoting encounters with God and God’s story. Oxenreider provides book and music recommendations for the Advent season and shares one of her family’s favorite simple Advent traditions.

>> “The Annunciation and Art with Victoria Emily Jones,” Old Books with Grace, November 17, 2021: Old Books with Grace, hosted by Dr. Grace Hamman [previously], a specialist in medieval literature, is one of my favorite podcasts, so I was beyond excited to be invited on as a guest! In this conversation, Grace and I discuss four paintings and three poems that respond to the momentous event known as the Annunciation, where Gabriel tells Mary that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son. While the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25, we thought it nonetheless appropriate at this time just before Advent to consider how Mary welcomes Jesus, since we are preparing to welcome him ourselves. Available on YouTube and on all podcast streaming platforms.

Grace just wrapped up a fascinating series on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and for the four weeks of Advent she will be taking a closer look at four familiar Christmas carols from different eras, examining their history, theology, and language and recommending an Advent practice inspired by each carol. Follow Old Books with Grace on Instagram or Twitter.

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SONG: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: This is the quintessential Advent hymn. Here are two renditions from last December by two of my favorite musical artists/groups. Wilder Adkins’s recording is on the Advent Sessions EP from Redeemer Community Church, and the Good Shepherd Collective recording, featuring Liz Vice and Charles Jones, is available as a single.

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NEW ALBUM: Advent Songs by the Porter’s Gate: The Porter’s Gate [previously] released a new album on November 12, a collection of ten original songs for Advent. The contributing songwriters are Nicholas Chambers, Paul Zach, Kate Bluett, Isaac Wardell, Liz Vice, Latifah Alattas (Page CXVI), and Tenielle Neda. Chambers, Zach, Vice, Alattas, and Neda are also featured as vocalists, as are Molly Parden, Jonathan Ogden, and Lauren Plank Goans. My favorites: “The Reign of Mercy,” “Mary’s Lullaby (Black Haired Boy),” “Simeon’s Song.”

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PAINTING + SHORT FILM: In 2017 Holy Family HTX, a church in Houston, commissioned artist-in-residence Lanecia Rouse Tinsley to create nine liturgical paintings, one for each major season of the church year. Called the Parament Collection, these six-by-six-foot pieces rotate throughout the year, signaling the change of season and inviting the congregation into a space of contemplation around seasonal themes.

The first painting in the cycle, Advent, is a minimalist composition predominantly in ultramarine, evoking Yves Klein’s blue monochromes; Tinsley says that, like Klein, she wants to “impregnate” the viewer with blue, which for her signifies hope. Blue (or alternatively, purple) is the primary color of Advent, but pink and white (for Gaudete Sunday and Christmas Eve, respectively) are also associated with it, which Tinsley makes reference to in her painting. At the white bar at the top, you can see a faint mark left by Hurricane Harvey; her studio flooded when the storm hit in August 2017, and this then-blank canvas suffered some water damage, but Tinsley made the conscious decision to use it to further press into the Advent theme of suffering. She lined the canvas in black, inspired by a line from Andy Warhol’s film Sunset: “Black means infinity.” All our longings, Tinsley says, are held within infinity.

The nine-minute film posted above is one of nine in a series by Chap Edmonson, titled Decoded, in which Tinsley discusses her Parament Collection piece by piece. View all nine films here.

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I also wanted to remind you about the Art & Theology Advent playlist I compiled on Spotify. Besides the ones mentioned above, here are the songs I’ve added to the mix since last Advent:

  • “Wonder” by MaMuse
  • “Better Days” by Chrisinti
  • “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens
  • “Peace” by Peter Bruun (a setting of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem)
  • “Magnificat primi toni” by Palestrina
  • “From This Wicked Fall” (Cum erubuerint) and “The Flower Gleams” (Hodie aperuit) by Hildegard of Bingen, arr. Richard Souther
  • “Mary” by Buffy Sainte-Marie
  • “Like Mary” by Jess Ray and Langdon
  • “Restoration Song (Hold On)” by Son of Cloud
  • Nine songs by Tom Wuest
  • “Lighten Our Darkness” by Joel Clarkson
  • “For the Long Night” by Dan + Claudia Zanes
  • “La Luz” by Brother Isaiah
  • “God’s Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares” by Blind Willie Johnson
  • “Sunrise Song” and “Clouds of Waiting, Clouds of Returning” by Jacob Goins
  • “Break of Dawn” and “You Always” by Antoine Bradford
  • “Eternal Light” and “Joy Will Come” by Paul Zach

Roundup: Call for creation care songs; an ode to red hair; and more

SONGWRITING CONTEST: 2021 Creation Care and Climate Justice Songwriting Contest, sponsored by The Porter’s Gate: “We are working on new worship resources celebrating God’s creation and His call to care for the created world. Over the next year we’ll be writing new songs on this subject and recording them. As part of this project, we are looking for submissions from anyone who would like to write a song or has already written a song on this subject. If you are a songwriter or composer, or if you know a songwriter who would be interested, click on this link for all the details of the contest. Songwriters are invited to submit worship songs related to caring for God’s creation, and we are offering a $500 cash prize to the winner. We’ll also record the winning piece.” No entry fee. Deadline August 30, 2021.

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CINEPOEM: “First Grade Activist” – Poem by Nic Sebastian, video by Marie Craven: This 2014 short by Australian filmmaker Marie Craven takes a poem written and read by Nic Sebastian—one of many poems made freely available for “remixing” through the now-defunct Poetry Storehouse—and sets it to moving images and music. About bullying in schools and transforming perceptions, the poem suggests concrete ways to turn a personal attribute that elicits taunts into one that’s praiseworthy, merely by reframing it. It’s an ode to red hair!

Video poetry, sometimes called “cinepoetry,” is a hybrid genre that combines the best of both art forms to make dynamic new works. To explore more, visit Moving Poems, Poetry + Video, filmpoetry.org, and the Film and Video Poetry Society, which is currently accepting submissions for its fourth annual symposium.

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NEW SONGS BY IAMSON:

IAMSON is the alias of Orlando Palmer, a Christian singer-songwriter from Richmond, Virginia. Here are two of his recent songs, each of which he invited a friend to perform.

>> “Peace” by IAMSON, performed by Caleb Carroll:

>> “Always with Me (Song for Anxiety)” by IAMSON, Jessica Fox, Paul Zach, and Kate Bluett; performed by IAMSON and Caiah Jones:

(See the original solo recording by IAMSON here.)

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts” with Dr. W. David O. Taylor, Theology in Motion: An excellent conversation with one of my favorite people! Host Steve Zank, director of theology at the Center for Worship Leadership at Christ College, Concordia University Irvine, talks with liturgical theologian, author, and professor David Taylor about his book Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts, about how the arts help shape individuals and communities, particularly in corporate worship contexts.

They discuss the role of metaphor in the Bible, the unique powers of different art forms, and the ways our aesthetic choices open up and close down opportunities for formation in worship.

I so appreciate Taylor’s ecumenicism. He’s an Anglican priest in the United States but does not prescribe any one “right” way of using the arts in worship. In all his examples from across Christian traditions and even historical eras, he’s keen on exploring what motivates aesthetic choices and the benefits and drawbacks of any given choice. For instance, he compares the experiences of worshipping in a Gothic cathedral versus in a living room; neither one is inherently better than the other, but each setting will inevitably form worshippers in distinct ways. He also compares two songs centered on the idea of God as rescuer: the Gettys’ “In Christ Alone” and Hillsong’s “Oceans”; both have a similar aim but take very different approaches to reach it, and that’s OK.

Lots of great content here, folks, and a great intro to the themes in Taylor’s book.

Advent, Day 7: Behold!

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

—Isaiah 40:3–5

LOOK: Caiphas Nxumalo (South African, 1940–2002), John the Baptist, 1970. Linocut. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 278.

Nxumalo, Caiphas_John the Baptist

Caiphas Nxumalo was a printmaker and wood sculptor who studied at the Rorke’s Drift Art School from around 1968 to 1971 (sources vary on the precise years). He was associated with the African-initiated amaNazaretha Church in South Africa.

In this linoleum cut Nxumalo shows John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, preaching repentance (bottom; Matt. 3:1–3), baptizing (Matt. 3:5–6), and eating wild honey (Matt. 3:4). The eye of God, which sees secret sins, burns bright and glorious. I’m not sure whether the people at the bottom are running away from John’s message of wrath or “turning around” from their wickedness to follow the true way. In Matthew’s account there are people from both categories of response.

The triangular frame rising from the base line was a common compositional device Nxumalo used to tell multiple components of a story, and in this context it’s especially appropriate, as it seems to me to allude to the valleys being lifted and the mountains being brought down low—a leveling of the landscape so that God’s glory can be plainly seen from any vantage point. (On another level, this Isaianic prophecy probably also refers to the proud being overthrown and the humble being exalted, as Mary sings about in her Magnificat.)

Advent is about the coming consummation of the kingdom of God in the day of the Lord. In Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge, who calls on the church to restore Advent’s focus on apocalyptic theology, describes John the Baptist as the central figure of Advent. She half-jokes that behind one of those cute little Advent calendar windows should be a coarse, fiery John shouting, “You brood of vipers!” (Matt. 3:7). “Irreducibly strange, gaunt and unruly, lonely and refractory, utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age,” John the Baptist “arrives announcing the opening event of the end-time” (277, 13). As prophesied by Malachi at the end of the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 11, “John the Baptist is the new Elijah, standing at the edge of the universe, at the dawn of a new world, the turn of the ages. That is his location as the sentinel, the premier personage of this incomparable Advent season—the season of the coming of the once and future Messiah” (277).

Like John, the church, Rutledge says, is also located on the frontier of the new age, between Jesus’s first and second advents, and we, too, are called to herald the Messiah, announcing, “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand.”

[Related posts: “Prepare the Way (Artful Devotion)”; “Turn and Live (Artful Devotion)”; “John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London”]

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

—Matthew 3:1–12

LISTEN: “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!)” by Paul Zach, Isaac Wardell, Leslie Jordan, Lorenzo Baylor, and Brian Nhira, on Justice Songs by the Porter’s Gate (2020) | CCLI #7158500

In my review of Justice Songs (and its companion album, Lament Songs), I wrote,

Justice Songs opens with a rousing call-and-response song, “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!),” that combines material from the mystical prologue of John’s Gospel with an Isaianic prophecy commonly read during Advent [Isaiah 40:3–5]. . . . Verse 4, syncopated with hand claps, lists divine epithets like “God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). “Father of the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5), “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). “He’s troubling the water, and we’re marching through”—an oblique reference to the African American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” about the liberation of the Israelites through the miraculously parted Red Sea, the paradigmatic “day of the Lord.”

The refrain, “Behold!,” is a word used hundreds of times throughout scripture, and it means “to fix the eyes upon; to see with attention; to observe with care.” Jesus says in Luke 7:21, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” May we behold with humility and excitement the age to come and respond with fruits of repentance.

Here’s a socially distanced performance of “His Kingdom Now Is Come” by the musicians of Whitworth Campus Worship for the Center for Congregational Song’s Election Day 2020 broadcast.

(Update, 12/9/20: Watch the Porter’s Gate perform this song in the studio on this Instagram video.)

This post marks the end of the first week of Advent. For many more Advent songs, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.

Songs of Lament and Justice by The Porter’s Gate

Though I grew up in the church, for a long time I was ignorant of the vibrant threads of lament and justice that run throughout scripture. I imbibed the message that good Christians never complain or get angry or question God or call him to account, that “rejoicing always” means always putting on a happy face (dwelling in sadness was tantamount to distrust), and that social justice is a “liberal agenda” and a distraction from the gospel. As my faith has matured and my engagement with the scriptures has deepened, my eyes have been opened to the embeddedness of justice in the biblical narrative, and how any lack of justice is cause for lament.

Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (2012) was instrumental in helping me see how social justice is an expression of God’s own heart and an important part of the church’s mission, not tangential to the gospel but an extension of it. My earlier conception of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, was so impoverished, as I had reduced it down to nothing more than a private transaction between me and God regarding the eternal destination of my soul. As I began to see, through reading scripture, that God cares about this world, and he cares about people’s souls and bodies, I came to realize how expansive the gospel really is, with real implications for the here and now. We may be in right relationship with God, or think we are, but are we in right relationship with our neighbors and, I would add, with the rest of God’s creation? That is, do we live justly, as God commands, which includes supporting policies that promote, as best as possible, the flourishing of all, not just ourselves or others like us?

Keller shows how the Christianese terms “sin” and “righteousness” have to do not only with personal morality but also with systems, and how “justice” is more multifaceted than merely “punishment.” Punishing wrongdoers and reestablishing rights is one type of justice, called rectifying (or retributive) justice, or mishpat in Hebrew. But primary justice (aka distributive justice) is making sure goods and opportunities are more equitably distributed in society. It’s proactive. “Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else” (11). Keller says that when these two Hebrew words appear together in the Bible, the best translation of the compound is “social justice.” So, for example, when Psalm 33:5 says, “He loveth righteousness [tzadeqah] and judgment [mishpat],” perhaps a better modern translation would be “The LORD loves social justice.”

The truncated “ticket to heaven,” “me and Jesus” understanding of salvation shows up in countless Christian worship songs, which form, or malform, our imaginations. I’m not at all dismissing the need for personal salvation (that is a critical component of the gospel!), or suggesting that we ought not to be looking toward eternity. What I am saying is that our relationship with Jesus, including our transformative experience of his love and grace, should have a profound impact on how we relate to and advocate for our neighbors, and our conception of heaven should be as huge and as glorious as the Bible alludes to (the entire world renewed and in harmony under the headship of Christ)—and we should start living into that vision NOW, even as we await Christ’s return. I often wonder whether, if there had been more biblical justice–oriented songs circulating and in church use during my upbringing, my deep hurt over the brokenness of the world and thus my sense of social responsibility as a Christian would have developed sooner.

Enter The Porter’s Gate Worship Project.

Founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell, The Porter’s Gate is a music collective whose mission is to be a “porter” for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. Their first album, Work Songs (2017), explores the concept of vocation in both the public and private spheres. That was followed up by Neighbor Songs (2019), centered on the communal aspect of Christian living and of God’s future, and the embodied love at the heart of the gospel.

And now, released this month, are two companion albums: Lament Songs and Justice Songs. Recorded by a diverse group of musicians in July 2020 on a farm in Virginia, the albums interweave fragments from the Psalms with biblical prophecies and apocalypses, blessings, Gospel stories, and protest chants, crafting a robust kingdom theology that promotes constructive engagement with contemporary issues and a looking toward the reconciliation of all things in Christ. “We fight for the victories we know You will win” (a lyric from “Justicia”) is a good encapsulation.

Political corruption, police brutality, racism, mass incarceration, sexual violence, economic exploitation, and war are all referenced, either implicitly or explicitly, as forms of oppression that need to be toppled, as they are an affront to God, marring his image.

Full of heartbreak and hope, the songs are shepherding me out of my tendency toward cynicism and helping me recapture the beauty of God’s vision for the world. They’re saturated in biblical language. An antidote to the all-too-common escapism theology present in some Christian music, they catalyze the church to weep with those who are weeping (Romans 12:15), to bear the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2), and to participate in God’s work of renewal in the world. God has not redeemed us to wait idly by while sin tightens its grip on society. No, he calls us to sow the seeds of his kingdom in anticipation of a bountiful harvest. To walk in the power of the Spirit, into dark corners, bringing light.

The Porter’s Gate seeks to provide songs for corporate worship, and all these would (potentially) be appropriate in that setting; for churches that aren’t used to the practice of lament or to engaging justice issues, some advance education and pastoral guidance will be in order. Some songs will naturally land better in some churches than in others. Some are challenging—and that’s a good thing, as challenge tends to grow us.

As one would expect, God is supplicated throughout the songs. Entreaties include

  • Come, Jesus, come
  • Be our light
  • Drive out the darkness
  • End all the violence
  • Do not be silent
  • Be near!
  • Illuminate the shadows
  • Take pity!
  • Keep the enemy back
  • Comfort
  • Be our refuge
  • Break oppression
  • Make me an instrument
  • Help me restore

And God is abundantly praised, and his promises laid claim to.

The songwriters on the two albums are Isaac Wardell, Latifah Alattas, Kate Bluett, Jessica Fox, Jon Guerra, Casey J, Wendell Kimbrough, Leslie Jordan, Dan Marotta, Orlando Palmer, John Swinton, Gregory Thompson, Liz Vice, Keith Watts, Tina Colón Williams, and Paul Zach.

As the writers would acknowledge, the general content and ethos of the songs are not “new” or alien to Christianity. If you cringe at the thought of bringing current events into worship or singing a confession of corporate sin or expressing sadness or outrage to God, just know that faithful Christians have been doing it since the beginning, and your discomfort may be because you haven’t been exposed to church traditions outside your own. Ecumenicism is an important aspect of The Porter’s Gate’s identity, says Isaac Wardell—an ecumenicism that says, “I come with gifts of the Spirit of my tradition, but I come also with the poverty of my tradition, looking for the charisms and the gifts of your tradition.” And I love that about the project.

Because I’m eager for others to see the biblical groundedness of the songs (which will be obvious to many upon first listening, but maybe not to those who are more selectivist in their Bible reading), and because I’m a musical worship leader who approaches worship music with great discernment of the theology it espouses, I’m going to point out just some of the scriptural connections in the songs.

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Listen to Lament Songs.

Acknowledging that the world is not right, and mourning specific instances of that unrighteousness, is the first step in justice work. It’s called lament. Lament cries out, “Why, God?” and “How long?” Honest expressions of woe are not irreverent. The Bible is full of such language. The fact that lament is addressed to God means that faith has not been abandoned; on the contrary, lament leads to a renewed confidence in God.

The first song on Lament Songs, “Wake Up, Jesus” (feat. Liz Vice), takes as its conceit the story of Jesus’s calming the storm after being woken up by his scared disciples, but it is sung in medias res, from the vantage point of one who is caught in a storm that is still raging. “Jesus, when you gonna wake up? . . . Won’t you rise up?” Again, maybe you’ve always assumed this kind of forthrightness is forbidden in prayer, but it’s in perfect sync with the way the biblical psalmists, for example, relate to God; take Psalm 44: “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?” (vv. 23–24). (See more biblical examples of this demand at https://artandtheology.org/2019/07/09/rise-up-artful-devotion/.)

When the instrumental intro to the second song begins, we recognize the famous passion chorale tune by Hassler, and we ready ourselves to sing “O Sacred Head . . .”—but instead we get “O Sacred Neck.” The word change is jarring. Why are we talking about Jesus’s neck? Then with the next phrase, “pressed down by blows and knees,” it becomes clear that the reference is to black victims of police violence, like George Floyd, who died in May after an officer, arresting him for trying to make a purchase with a counterfeit $20 bill, knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes while he pled for his life and then died. (Two other officers assisted in restraining him, and another prevented onlookers from intervening.)

Continue reading “Songs of Lament and Justice by The Porter’s Gate”