A Little East of Jordan (Artful Devotion)

Redon, Odilon_Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, ca. 1905–10. Oil on canvas, 56 1/2 × 24 1/2 in. (143.5 × 61.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.

And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

—Genesis 32:22–31 (KJV)

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SONG: “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob” | Text by Emily Dickinson, ca. 1859 | Music by Dominic de Grande, 2017 | Performed by St. Salvator’s Chapel Choir, under the direction of Tom Wilkinson, on Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, 2018 [listen on SoundCloud]

This choral composition was commissioned in 2016 as part of the TheoArtistry project [previously] of the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the aim of which is to reinvigorate dialogues between theologians and practicing artists. Emerging theologians from St. Andrews’ divinity school were paired with composers under the guidance of Sir James Macmillan to create six new choral settings of Hebrew Bible “annunciations,” communications of God to humankind. The collaborations are mutually beneficial: composers who may have no Christian background or no formal theological training but who want to contribute to the landscape of modern sacred music or seek out new lyrical content in the Bible are provided with textual exegesis and consultation by those who are learned in the fields of theology and biblical studies, and on the other hand theologians have Bible passages opened up to them in new ways through music, helping them to engage the texts on a more experiential level. Creative inspiration on both sides! Dr. George Corbett, director of TheoArtistry and an ITIA lecturer, says the St. Andrews divinity school wants composers and other artists to use them as a resource.

Dominic de Grande was one of six composers selected from an applicant pool of about a hundred to write a choral piece approximately three minutes in length that would be performable by a good amateur choir. He was assigned Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match and was partnered with theologian Marian Kelsey, who oriented him to the ambiguity of the Genesis 32 narrative, the Hebrew wordplay, and the narrative’s appropriations in liturgy, literature, and visual art. De Grande chose to set Emily Dickinson’s poem on the subject, “A little East of Jordan”:

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard—

Till morning touching mountain—
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast—to return—

Not so, said cunning Jacob!
“I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me”—Stranger!
The which acceded to—

Light swung the silver fleeces
“Peniel” Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!

Because the tone of the poem is light and playful, de Grande scored it in the context of a grandmother telling the story to her grandchild at bedtime; he titled the composition “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob,” the word Savta being Hebrew for “grandmother.” It starts off gently, lilting, with a harmonic underpinning consisting of three chords. But, as Kelsey pointed out, the biblical text evokes a sense of danger and intensity, so after Dickinson’s third stanza, de Grande inserted a fragment from Genesis—“LET ME GO, FOR DAY IS BREAKING”—spoken by Jacob’s mysterious opponent. It’s sung as a burst of voices and organ, the latter six syllables introducing six new chords, evoking a sense of otherness. This demand forms a juxtaposition with the sweet, innocuous language of Dickinson’s angel, who politely asks permission to break for mealtime. After the interjection the piece returns to its gentler tone, as dawn dispels the “silver fleeces” of cloud and Jacob sits in the aftermath of the encounter. The human whistling throughout suggests something of the numinous.

Annunciations (ITIA book)

To learn more about the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme, check out Annunciations: Sacred Music for the Twenty-First Century (2019), an open-source book available for free download as a PDF or for purchase in other formats. The book includes reflections on the collaboration process and other aspects of the project by all twelve participating theologians and composers (plus full scores! and links to audio) as well as chapters by various contributors on sacred music in worship settings versus secular settings, the theology of music, the vocation of the composer, moments of divine encounter in the ancient Near East, Mary as a model for creative people, the Gospel canticles in church liturgies, and more.

You can also watch this twenty-minute behind-the-scenes documentary:

The other “annunciations” in the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme are God speaking to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), the threefold calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Elijah and the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19), and the Song of Songs 3:6–11.

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For an Artful Devotion from last year on this same biblical text, see “Wrestling Jacob”; it features a contemporary woodcut illustration from a German Bible and one of my favorite Charles Wesley hymns, with music from the shape-note tradition.

For theologically informed commentary by Natalie Carnes [previously] on three modern artworks of Jacob wrestling the angel, see The Visual Commentary on Scripture.


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 13, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Purpose of Advent, light installation, book list, interview, TheoArtistry

WHY CELEBRATE ADVENT? Some of my evangelical friends don’t understand why I observe Advent. Cheryl Bridges Johns’s recent Seedbed article “Advent and the Winter of Our Disenchantment” answers the question so well, opening like this: “Advent is the time to open the first pages of the Church’s story of salvation. It is an enchanted portal into a world of darkness, deep mystery and the Spirit’s hidden brooding. Advent asks us to sit a while in the darkness, waiting for the light of God.” It’s a counterweight to “the unbearable lightness of Christmas,” a space to groan alongside our spiritual forebears. See also the Desiring God articles “Christmas Is Too Big for One Day” and “Seven Reasons to Celebrate Advent.” Christmas didn’t occur in a vacuum! Advent makes us mindful of the larger story of God’s promise to his people.

LIGHT MASONRY: Michael Wright tipped me off to this stunning light installation by Jason Bruges Studio in the main nave of York Minster. It was one of six works commissioned for Illuminating York, an annual nighttime festival supported by Arts Council England that encourages visitors to explore and discover the historic city through the imagination of artists who use the medium of light in all its forms. Designed to highlight the cathedral’s Gothic architecture, Light Masonry was constructed using a bespoke system of forty-eight computer-controlled, icon-beam moving-head luminaires (see the “making of” video) and was complemented by the live performance of Arvo Pärt’s Pari intervallo on organ. It ran October 26–29, 2016. The video below captures some of its magnificence.

Light Masonry by Jason Bruges
Light Masonry installation by Jason Bruges Studio, York Minster, York, England, October 26–29, 2016.

BOOK LIST: I recently compiled an annotated bibliography of books published in English between 2014 and 2016 on the subject of Christianity and art: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2204&action=show&lang=en. The thirty-seven entries, from a variety of authors and publishers, cover topics such as iconographic exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, the religious art of Pablo Picasso, contemporary church art commissions, visual culture in the Christian kingdom of Kongo, black public religious art in Chicago, a theology of human creativity, how to launch and manage a church gallery, and building a curriculum for the fine arts in Christian education. Let me know if I’m missing any!

INTERVIEW: Earlier this month I was interviewed by Joan Huyser-Honig for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship about my vocation as a Christian arts blogger, the two Advent art resources I developed, and my participation in the “Bodies of Christ” seminar at Calvin College this summer. (Read the interview: “Victoria Emily Jones on Gazing as a Spiritual Practice.”) Joan had some good questions, including

  • When you post to your Art & Theology blog, who do you hope will see it and what do you hope they’ll do with it?
  • Your blog’s tagline is “Revitalizing the Christian imagination through painting, poetry, music, and more.” What might or does happen in Christians and congregations who are open to revitalizing imagination?
  • Picture a worship planner without your deep knowledge of art and theology. How might he or she start using resources from your blog in planning public worship?

THEOARTISTRY: TheoArtistry is a new initiative of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “Through new projects and research, TheoArtistry celebrates the practice, making, performance, curatorship, and reception of Christian art. It also seeks to inform the scholarly and public perception of the role of the arts in theology and church practice.” The first project they’ve launched is a collaboration between internationally selected composers and PhD candidates in the St. Andrews Divinity School to set to music “annunciation” texts from the Hebrew Bible. (Two of the participants talk process in the recent Transpositions article “Setting Fire to Music.”) TheoArtistry will also be launching a new database that links artists interested in working with Christian themes, theologians interested in creative collaborations with artists, and commissioners of Christian art. I am SO stoked about all this! For more information, see http://theoartistry.org.