Roundup: Anger, lament, and racial oppression

INTERVIEW: “Singing the Songs of Injustice” with David Bailey: David Bailey is the director of the reconciliation ministry Arrabon and founder of its music-making and liturgical resource arm, Urban Doxology. In this interview conducted by W. David O. Taylor, Bailey shares how “biblical, angry, congregational worship can help transform our hearts and churches.” “God has given us the psalms to be an ‘anger school’ for us and I’ve discovered that when we skip class, we aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with difficult stuff we’re experiencing now,” Bailey says. “The extraordinary gift of the psalms is that they show us how to pray angry prayers without being overcome by our anger, how to hate without sinning (to borrow from Saint Paul’s language), or, as Eugene Peterson once put it, how to ‘cuss without cussing.’”

Bailey discusses the constant simmer of race relations in America, faithful versus unfaithful expressions of anger, the language of “enemy” in the Psalms, the importance of lament in Sunday gatherings and the need for language that expresses the horizontal aspects of what it means to be a Christian, and leading without moderation during turbulent times.

Anger prayer card
The Psalms of Anger: Prayer Card (illustration by Phaedra Taylor)

Interviewer David Taylor’s latest book, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, contains a chapter on “The Psalms of Anger.” Read an excerpt here, or view this video talk. To coincide with the release in March, he and his wife Phaedra created a set of fifteen prayer cards. His prayer on the “Anger” card reads, “To the God whose holy anger heals, to the Messiah whose righteous anger overcomes evil, and to the Spirit who keeps our angers from turning violent and destructive: receive our wounded hearts, take our burning words, protect us from the desire for revenge. May our faithful angers become fuel for justice in our fractured world and for the mending of broken relations in our communities. For God’s sake—and ours. Amen.”

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LITURGIES

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LAMENT SONGS

The first two are new.

“I Just Wanna Live” by Johnnetta Bryant, performed by Keedron Bryant: Twelve-year-old gospel singer Keedron Bryant posted a video on Instagram last week of himself singing a song his mom wrote in response to the killing of George Floyd. “God gave me those lyrics” for Keedron, she said in a joint interview on Today. Keedron said he prayed the song, meditated with it, then hit record. It’s a heart-baring, heartbreaking lament, a plea for divine protection in a world that is especially dangerous for young black males.

“It Is Enough!” by R. DeAndre Johnson: R. DeAndre Johnson is the pastor of music and worship life at Christ Church Sugar Land outside Houston. He wrote the lyrics for “It Is Enough!” in July 2016 following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile but hadn’t set them to music until now. The nine verses bear the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy!), or “Christe eleison” (Christ, have mercy!), a common cry of lament. “There are no words that can contain / The depth of sorrow, grief, and pain / That mothers, sons, and all exclaim: / Kyrie eleison!” Johnson sang the song for his church’s livestreamed service on May 31. A lead sheet is available on his Facebook page. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”: Sharon Irving is a singer-songwriter, spoken-word artist, and worship leader from Chicago who was also a semifinalist on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. In this video from 2015 she sings a spiritual that expresses deep sorrow—“When my strength is failing,” “When my heart is aching,” “When my life feels like a burden”—but also trust in the companionship of Christ, who walks with us through valleys of death. Having likely originated as an improvisation, the song has several lyrical variations and can be easily adapted to voice a range of feelings: “In my rage,” “In my frustration,” “In my exhaustion,” “In my confusion,” etc.

“O This Night Is Dark” by Tom Wuest: Last Sunday my congregation sang Isaac’s Wardell’s setting of Psalm 126 [previously], whose refrain is “Although we are weeping, Lord, help us keep sowing the seeds of your kingdom . . .” Seeds of love, truth, justice, hope. I just learned that Wardell’s song was inspired by Tom Wuest’s “O This Night Is Dark,” released in 2008 on Rain Down Heaven. In addition to Psalm 126, Wuest’s song also references 1 Corinthians 15, Isaiah 2, Amos 9, and Isaiah 65.

 

And this week as I was listening to the song, the following image by Scott Erickson showed up on my Instagram feed, with the caption “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).

Erickson, Scott_Sorrowful Saint
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), The Sorrowful Saint, 2016

Erickson painted the image in July 2016 in response to the fatal shootings of Sterling and Castile. It suggests that tears of grief can be generative, that new life can rise out of death. That’s not at all to say that death is good because it catalyzes a movement of change, but that our mourning the evils of racism and murder, our publicly crying out “Enough!,” is not fruitless, though it often seems so. Growth will come.

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VIDEO ART: Weight by André Daughtry:Weight is an attempt to visualize societal projections on the black male body,” writes André Daughtry, a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary photography and media artist, writer, and performer. The piece is from 2014, and last year PBS’s AllArts station commissioned Daughtry to restage it in New York City as part of a larger video work. [HT: ImageUpdate]

Daughtry has a master’s degree in theology and the arts from Union Theological Seminary and serves as community minister of the arts at Judson Memorial Church, which has a long history of nurturing artists. “We believe that artists have the potential to serve as our modern-day prophets,” the church website reads. “They show us where we’ve been, who we are, and what we can become.”

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PODCAST EPISODE: “The SPU Conversation About Spike Lee Films,” North by Pacific Northwest: In this Seattle Pacific University conversation released April 11, 2019, two cinephiles, Jeffrey Overstreet and Josh Hornbeck, discuss some of the films of writer-director Spike Lee, “the boldest and brashest auteur in American film” (Guardian). The first several minutes, though, are spent decrying the then recent Oscar win of Green Book, which popular audiences loved but critics were generally sour on because it perpetuates the simplistic and ultimately false notion that to solve racism, white people just need to realize that “we’re all the same” and find a black friend.

Best known for Do the Right Thing (1989), Lee is one of several filmmakers they cite who deals with race in more complex ways, and while some people dismiss him as an “angry black man,” many celebrate him for forcing audiences to reckon with the problem of racism. “I think there should be rage inside of every conscious human being in the world, because there’s stuff that’s just not right,” he said in a 2000 interview. “Anger can be constructive.” Lee’s films are heavy-handed, in-your-face; they shout and unsettle. Heavy-handedness usually makes for bad art, but Overstreet and Hornbeck show how the approach works for Lee.

Spike Lee Films-01

Starting at 16:44, they focus on the satirical comedy-drama Bamboozled (2000), which joined the prestigious Criterion Collection just this March. (It’s also been the subject of much scholarly study across fields, one instance I’ve come across being an essay by art theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, titled “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled,” in What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images.) “Under pressure to help revive his network’s low rating, television writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) hits on an explosively offensive idea: bringing back blackface with The New Millennium Minstrel Show. The white network executives love it, and so do audiences, forcing Pierre and his collaborators to confront their public’s insatiable appetite for dehumanizing stereotypes.”

From 25:54 onward, Overstreet and Hornbeck discuss more generally their passion for cinema and the importance of revisiting films.

Here are some things they reference:

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People have been expressing frustration that The Help, a civil rights era drama that sidelines the perspectives of its black characters, is the number one most-streamed movie on Netflix right now. Film critic Alissa Wilkinson gives a list of fifteen movies to watch instead on racial injustice and being black in America. A mix of dramas and documentaries by such filmmakers as Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and others, these are black-centered stories that help illuminate where we’re at right now. All are available for online streaming, and Wilkinson provides links to her reviews.

Roundup: Multiethnic Jesus, egg dancing, new Easter album, and more

ARTICLE: “Searching for a Jesus Who Looks More Like Me” by Eric V. Copage: I was interviewed the other week for this New York Times piece on multiethnic images of Christ. I comment on paintings by Wisnu Sasongko (Indonesian), Greg Weatherby (Aboriginal Australian), Emmanuel Garibay (Filipino), and Solomon Raj (Indian), and helped select a few of the other images.

Jesus on a Lotus by Solomon Raj
Solomon Raj (Indian, 1921–2019), Jesus on the Lotus Flower, 1998. Batik. Photo: Gudrun Löwner.
Garibay, Emmanuel_Jesus with coffee
Emmanuel Garibay (Filipino, 1962–), Untitled, 2007. Oil on wood. Photo via the artist.

Of those Christians who even permit images of Jesus, some hold to a strict literalism and object to images that show him as anything other than a first-century Jew from Israel-Palestine—even though these same literalists would rightly insist that no image is literally Jesus. As I hope is clear from my website, I embrace a wide range of Christological imagery, which I feel reflects the universal presence and revelation of God. (“Christ is all, and in all,” as the apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 3:11; he continues to manifest spiritually, and through his ecclesial body, all over the world.) I’m not so proud to assume that my way of picturing Jesus is the most right or authoritative; I need others to help me see Jesus more fully, more truly. Like C. S. Lewis said, “My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.” And historical realism is not the only, or even necessarily the best (depends on context), art style to show who Jesus is.

Even though the historical Jesus never wore a full-face moko (tattoo) like the Maori, as Sofia Minson paints him, nor did he sit on a lotus flower when he taught his disciples, nor did he appear to Peter, James, and John transfigured between two Yoruba deities, these images and others like them tell us something about Jesus. At a broad level, they proclaim the Incarnation—God in flesh, dwelling among us, as us, that is, fully human. The historical Jesus existed in a specific time and place, and had ethnic particularities, but his coming was not just for the Jews but for the Gentiles too, and not just for his day, for but all time. Through symbol and metaphor and materiality, artists make this truth real.

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UPDATED BLOG POSTS

Occasionally if I’ve covered an art topic in the past and then come across a new image that fits that topic perfectly, I will add it as an addendum to the original post. I’ve done that with two Eastertide posts.

“‘She mistook him for the gardener’”: Humanity was born in a garden and reborn in a garden, as biblical scholars like N. T. Wright are keen to point out, with Easter morning marking the launch of new creation. In art history the resurrected Christ is sometimes amusingly shown carrying gardening tools when he encounters Mary Magdalene outside his tomb—to explain the case of mistaken identity that John records, perhaps, but more likely to establish a metaphor. Two of the paintings I’ve added to this post are by Janpeter Muilwijk, whose New Gardener from 2017 shows the freshly risen Christ in a white T-shirt and overalls, heading with open arms toward Mary, who is dressed like a bride to receive him. (Mary is modeled after the artist’s daughter Mattia, who died.) Butterflies alight on each of Jesus’s five wounds, marking them as sites of transformation, and the flowering branches of a tree crown him with spring glory.

Muilwijk, Janpeter_New Gardener
Janpeter Muilwijk (Dutch, 1960–), New Gardener, 2017. Oil on canvas, 150 × 100 cm. Private collection, Netherlands.

“The Unnamed Emmaus Disciple: Mary, wife of Cleopas?”: Written in 2017, this is one of Art & Theology’s most visited posts. In it I conjecture that the pilgrim who traveled with Cleopas from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the famous Easter story could have been a woman, perhaps Cleopas’s wife. Several artists have conjectured the same, and besides adding to this compilation three Emmaus paintings that the artist Maximino Cerezo Barredo sent me after the initial publication, I’ve also added one by Jyoti Sahi, which shows Jesus sitting with the two disciples—one male, one female—on the floor of a small roadside dwelling, breaking chapati (Indian flatbread) together. He is ablaze with glory, evoking his earlier revelations as I AM in the burning bush before Moses and to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration.

Sahi, Jyoti_Supper at Emmaus
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), The Supper at Emmaus, 1980. Mixed media on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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NEW SONGS

“A Bedtime Song for Anxious Children” by W. David O. Taylor and Paul Zach: David Taylor has written a new children’s song (set to music by Paul Zach), which he sings here with his daughter, Blythe. The lyrics are in the video description on YouTube.

“I’ve heard from so many parents recently that their children are struggling with anxiety, fear, frustration, sadness, anger, and restlessness,” Taylor writes, “and so I thought a little song reassuring them of God’s care at night, when they’re most vulnerable, might help their hearts. Our hope is that the melody might be simple enough for parents and children to be able to sing it when they go to bed.”

“See the Day” by Liz Vice: One of my favorite singers, Liz Vice, released a new single on April 10, called “See the Day.” Cowritten by her, Leslie Jordan, and Jonathan Day, it expresses hope for the coming day of the Lord, when justice will roll down like a mighty river, walls of division will crumble into dust, oppression will cease, and the whole world will be startled awake by love. “Precious Lord, come lead us on” to that reality.

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NEW ALBUM: Easter 1 by Mac Meador: Mac Meador, a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, released a new EP of six songs for Eastertide this April, a sort of flip side to the Lent 1 EP he released in February. I really enjoyed them both (and the same goes for his Summer of Psalms from 2018). The Easter album strikes just the right note for me right now—of a quiet hope and joy that’s not absent of pain. The songs celebrate Christ the risen king while also expressing longing for the age to come, when the kingdom will be established in full. Lean into that promise!

 

You can stream and purchase Meador’s music on Bandcamp. (Note: To help musicians affected by COVID-19, Bandcamp is waiving its cut of all sales made on its site on May 1.) You might also want to check out his YouTube channel, where he posts additional songs. For the past four weeks he has been releasing “Quarantine Hymn Sing” lyric videos for his church, Grace + Peace Austin, where he serves as minister of music. (He also sets Bible memory verses to music for kids!)

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EGG DANCING: “The Egg Dance: From Peasant Village to Political Caricature”: The Public Domain Review has compiled an amusing gallery of historical paintings, drawings, and prints that show the egg dance, a traditional Easter game with several variations, most associated with western European peasantry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Brueghel the Younger, Pieter_The Egg Dance
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (Flemish, 1564/65–1637/38), The Egg Dance, ca. 1620. Oil on panel, 26 1/4 × 41 1/4 in. (66.7 × 104.8 cm).

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ART VIDEO: “500 Years of the Herrenberg Altarpiece”: I love seeing all the fun, creative resources being produced by art museums to help educate and engage the public in viewing art. Though I speak not a lick of German, this video from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart about Jörg (Jerg) Ratgeb’s Herrenberg Altarpiece made me laugh and had me hooked for its full five minutes. (I came across it when I was prepping a Holy Week blog post that features a different painting attributed to the same artist.) Released last October for the five hundredth anniversary of the altarpiece, the video, directed by Valentin Hennig and Oleg Kauz, animates some of the birds from the painted panels and has them narrate as the camera zooms in on details (one of them quite jarring and unseemly!). They then fly through the museum hall and over the town some twenty miles southwest to the church where the piece originally stood.

To add autogenerated subtitles, click the “CC” (closed captioning) button on the bottom of the video player, then select your language using the gear icon.

Painted in 1519, this double-winged altarpiece was commissioned by the Brethren of the Common Life, a Catholic pietist community, for the high altar of the collegiate church of Herrenberg in Swabia. Closed, it shows the apostles about to set out on their mission to spread the word of God. The first open view (interior panels closed, exterior wings folded out) reveals scenes from the passion of Christ, each panel with a primary scene in the foreground and a secondary scene in the background: the Last Supper with the Agony in the Garden, the Flagellation and Crowning with Thorns with the Ecce Homo (presentation to the crowd), the Crucifixion with the Carrying of the Cross and the Entombment, and the Resurrection with the Noli me tangere (appearance to Mary Magdalene). Completely opened (its feast-day configuration), the altarpiece shows scenes from the infancy of Christ, with reference also to the life of the Virgin Mary. It used to have a central Marian statue and predella figures, but these were likely destroyed when the Protestant Reformation came to Württemberg in 1534.

The artist had already died by this time—he was executed (drawn and quartered) for treason in 1526 for his role as one of the leaders of the German Peasants’ Rebellion.

Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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

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

Rivers of Babylon (Artful Devotion)

Lilien, Ephraim Moses_By the Rivers of Babylon
Ephraim Moshe Lilien (Austrian, 1874–1925), On the Rivers of Babylon, 1910. Etching and aquatint, 28 × 55 cm.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

—Psalm 137

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SONG: “Rivers of Babylon” | Words and music by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians, 1970 | Covered by Linda Ronstadt, on Hasten Down the Wind (1976)

In Psalm 137, a communal lament, Israel remembers with sadness the Babylonian captivity and, in the infamous final line (v. 9), wishes violence against her captors’ children. The Kingston, Jamaica–based reggae group The Melodians set Psalm 137:1–4, along with Psalm 19:14, to music in 1970 as “Rivers of Babylon.” (Unsurprisingly, the controversial imprecation is excluded.) The song became a sort of anthem for Rastafarianism, an Afrocentric religious movement that laments the exile of Africans to the West Indies and the Americas—“Babylon”—through slavery and expresses longing for the homeland, Africa, “Zion.” Boney M.’s 1978 disco cover popularized the song in Europe. I’m not a fan of this famous rendition, because the bright, bouncy style doesn’t fit the tone of the lyrics. In fact, I even prefer Linda Ronstadt’s cover to the original Melodians recording. She gives it more of a bluegrass gospel vibe and, appropriately, sings a cappella:

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The etching above is by Ephraim Moshe (Moses) Lilien, an Austro-Hungarian art nouveau illustrator and a member of the Zionist movement. He helped found the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. Click here to see other religious-themed prints by the artist.

I first encountered this image in a challenging blog post by theologian W. David O. Taylor, who, addressing the oft-expunged vindictive sentiments of Psalm 137’s third stanza and citing Miroslav Volf, claims that our rage belongs before God liturgically. Taylor has contributed a very fine trio of visual commentaries on Psalm 137 to the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, where he discusses an English Romanesque manuscript illumination, a mosaic by Marc Chagall, and an Abu Ghraib prison series triptych by Fernando Botero in light of the psalm.

Psalm 137 VCS

An assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Taylor has done much work on the Psalms, especially for popular audiences, including interviewing Eugene Peterson and Bono on the topic, compiling an excellent list of Psalm resources for the church, and writing Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, due out from Thomas Nelson next March.


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 22, cycle C, click here.

The Christmas Songwriters Project

This week Christianity Today published an article by theology and culture professor W. David O. Taylor, titled “Why Putting Christ Back in Christmas Is Not Enough.” I highly recommend it. In it Taylor discusses four fundamental influences on the way Christmas is celebrated in America, beginning with its illegalization by Puritans in the seventeenth century. One public notice warned citizens:

The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.

“So what happens,” muses Taylor,

when the Protestant church in the 17th century evacuates its worship of the celebration of Christ’s birth? A liturgical vacuum is created that non-ecclesial entities willingly fill. The government determines the legal shape of Christmas, the market shapes a society’s emotional desires and financial expectations about the holy day, the ideal family replaces the holy family, and the work of visual artists shape its imagination, while musicians and writers fill the empty space with their own stories about the “magic” of Christmas.

Taylor is not saying we can’t enjoy any of the secular trappings of Christmas (“the grace and goodness of God are not absent from these things”), only that we should recognize that the Christmas story told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is far more fantastical, more difficult and dangerous, more multicultural and multigenerational, and more relevant than the Christmas story America tells—including American civil religion.

This article was adapted from a lecture Taylor gave, as part of the Fuller Texas Lecture Series, to a gathering of scholars and artists at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Houston on October 20, which can be streamed via Facebook. (Starts at about 22:40.) The focus is on the critical role songwriters can play in reorienting our imaginations back toward the scriptural accounts of Christ’s birth, going beyond the sentimental and nostalgic into a more thorough habitation of the story in all its shades.

What if the narrative of Matthew and Luke were more determinative of our Christmas holidays than the narrative of Wall Street and primetime television? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to sing to God from the depths of their hearts—of their heart’s longings and wonderings, hopes and fears, certainties and doubtings, joys and melancholy yearnings? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to encounter the good news afresh—in a way that exceeded their sense of how deeply good, richly mysterious, and wonderfully paradoxical that news could in fact be? What if our Christmas songs offered an opportunity for our congregations to be attuned to each other—across the aisle as well as across denominational and cultural and geographic and linguistic lines—in a way that we never imagined possible?

This lecture was the capstone of the second workshop of the Christmas Songwriters Project, a new initiative sponsored by the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), and Duke Divinity School. Co-directing the project along with Taylor are Noel Snyder, a program manager at the CICW with a background in musicology, and Lester Ruth, a historian of Christian worship at Duke. The first workshop, held in March in Grand Rapids, Michigan, brought together twenty-four Christian songwriters from across the US who were specially invited to participate. Following its success, a second one took place October 18–19 in Houston with a new set of eighteen select songwriters, all local. The hope is to conduct future workshops, as soon as next fall, in Nashville, and later in New York City and Los Angeles. A website for the Christmas Songwriters Project is under development and is likely to launch this coming spring.

Christmas Songwriters Project
Professor Lester Ruth leads a Christmas Songwriters Project session on October 18 in which participants are tasked with reworking Mary’s Magnificat into a congregational hymn that highlights the upside-down kingdom of God.

Over the course of two days, the Houston songwriters performed a close reading of the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke; studied Charles Wesley’s Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, a collection of eighteen of his hymns, published in 1745; and sought to get a sense of the musical aesthetics of today’s top fifteen Christmas carols. They asked themselves a double question: What does Christmas sound like? And what should Christmas sound like? (What new sounds are needed to re-sound the stories in Matthew and Luke?)

During these workshops, there was a heavy emphasis on collaboration. Several fine songs have resulted, which are in various phases of production. Six premiered in their earliest forms in the above video, interspersed with Taylor’s lecture.

One of the highlights is a reprise of the saccharine “Away in a Manger” that takes into account the Massacre of the Innocents and the resultant flight to Egypt of the Holy Family, thereby giving a broader view of the Christmas story, one that coheres better with the Matthean narrative, which ends with Rachel weeping. The clever twists on the original lyrics and the grayer tonality give a sense of the darkness into which Jesus came and also resonate with the experiences, hopes, and fears of many contemporary refugees.

“Away from the Manger: The Refugee King” – Words and music by Liz Vice, Wen Reagan, Bruce Benedict, Greg Scheer, and Lester Ruth | Performed by Liz Vice (lead vocals) and Hannah Glavor (guitar and backing vocals)

[Update, November 8, 2019: Liz Vice has just released “Refugee King” as a single!]

Away from the manger they ran for their lives
The tiny boy Jesus a son they must hide
A dream came to Joseph, they fled in the night
And they ran and they ran and they ran

No stars in the sky but the Spirit of God
Led down into Egypt from Herod to hide
No place for his parents, no country or tribe
And they ran and they ran and they ran

Stay near me, Lord Jesus, when danger is nigh
And keep us from Herods and all of their lies
I love thee, Lord Jesus, the Refugee King
And we sing and we sing and we sing
And we sing and we sing and we sing

Alleluia (×5)

(Related post: “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”)

Another highlight is the song “Savior of Mankind,” an original setting of a hymn text by Charles Wesley, performed at around 51:00 in the lecture video. It captures a sense of the cosmic import of the Nativity, and of the overlap of heaven and earth that is the Christ. The line “’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze”—wow.

“Savior of Mankind”Words by Charles Wesley, 1745 | Music by Luke Brawner, Joe Deegan, Rebekah Maddux El-Hakam, and Paul Yoon, 2018

Let angels and archangels sing
The Son of God, Immanuel’s Name
Adore with us our newborn king
And still the joyful news proclaim

All heav’n and earth be ever joined
To praise the Savior of mankind (
×2)

The everlasting God comes down
To walk with the sons of men
Without his majesty or crown
The great Invisible is seen

Of all his dazzling glories shorn
The everlasting God is born (×2)

Angels, see the infant’s face
With rapt’rous awe the Godhead own
’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze
And cast your crowns before his throne

Now he on his footstool lies
For he built both earth and skies (×2)

By him into existence brought
You sang the all-creating Word
You heard him call our world from naught
Again, in honor of your Lord

You morning stars, your hymns employ
And shout, you sons of God, for joy (×2)

Upcoming courses, workshops, conferences

There are many people and organizations committed to integrating faith and the arts, and they often organize opportunities for public participation. Here are some such opportunities being offered this spring and summer, organized by date. The last one, a weeklong course taught by David Taylor, looks especially appealing to me and my context, and I’m considering registering.

A few early-bird registration/application deadlines are coming up very soon, on March 31, so give these a gander sooner than later. Click on the links for information on schedules/syllabi, speakers, accommodations, and fee breakdowns. Room and board are not included in the cost quotes I’ve listed unless specifically noted.

If you’re reading this post sometime after spring 2017, or the application deadlines are too tight for you, you’ll be pleased to know that some of these events occur yearly, and if not, you’re sure to find similar ones. Check out the websites of the organizing bodies to see what they have going on.

Title: “Art and Theology” (course)
Dates: March 26–29, 2017
Location: Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, England
Organizer: Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE)
Cost: £225 (~ $280 US) (includes room and board)
Instructors: Christopher Irvine; Alison Milbank; Sophie Hacker; Stephen Stavrou; Laura Moffatt
Description: “This short course is designed to give participants the opportunity to both engage with Christian art and to reflect through class presentations and discussion how art is perceived. Each day will balance theoretical input with visits to see art in churches, galleries, and chapels in Oxford. We will examine the contexts in which Christian art is viewed, suggest ways of how we may reflect theologically on contemporary art, and look at the place of art in churches within its architectural and liturgical context.” (I’m intrigued by the lecture title “Museums and Galleries as a Theological Resource”!)

Title: “Lux Ecclesiae: The Light of the Church” (lecture series)
Dates: April 25–29, 2017
Location: Paraclete Retreat House, Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, USA
Organizer: Community of Jesus
Speakers: Msgr. Timothy Verdon; Filippo Rossi
Cost: $1,000 (includes room and board; single-lecture options available)
Description: “Practically from the beginning of its history, the Church has used architecture and the visual arts to express its life, investing thought, creative energies and resources. The reasons for this choice are theological and pastoral, but also anthropological: human beings want to ‘see’, are frustrated if they cannot see, define ‘seeing’ as understanding (as when, grasping a point, we say, ‘I see’), and desire above all things to see the God who, invisible in himself, became visible in Jesus Christ.” Monsignor Timothy Verdon, academic director of the Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality in Barga, Italy, will develop these themes in a series of seven lectures, and sacred artist Filippo Rossi will give a talk as well.

Title: Movies and Meaning Festival
Dates: April 27–30, 2017
Location: KiMo Theatre, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
Organizer: The Porch
Cost: $189
Speakers: Alice Walker; Mona Haydar; Gareth Higgins; Brian McLaren; Malidoma Somé
Description: The third annual Movies and Meaning Festival, an interfaith initiative, is centered on the theme “Hope in the Dark.” Over one weekend, participants will be inspired and challenged on this theme by artists and activists who work at the intersection of creativity, peace, spirituality, and social change. Films will serve as touchstones throughout the event; screenings include Pete’s Dragon; The Red Balloon; Mary and Max; Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth; Embrace of the Serpent; Reds; I Am Belfast; The Color Purple; and more. Participants will walk away with a renewed spirit for social justice and tools for community healing.   Continue reading “Upcoming courses, workshops, conferences”

Art resources for Lent

As you may have noticed, I’ve had to ease up lately on my self-imposed one-post-a-week rule to accommodate other projects. For February and March, I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday school course at my church called “Art and the Church: Seeing the Sacred in Global Christian Art”; I have a really great group of people exploring the topic with me, and I’ve enjoyed seeing which images they respond to most. I’ve also been invited by three separate entities to produce content on their platforms this spring: by a missions organization, to curate an online gallery of Passion art; by a divinity school, to write a post for its blog; and by a Christian ministry at Brown University, to deliver a talk to undergraduates. Moreover, I just returned from a trip to California, where I attended a Biola University–sponsored art symposium called “Art in a Postsecular Age”; I got to meet Matthew Milliner and Jonathan Anderson and hear from a panel of other distinguished speakers.

So, while I had every intention of getting this list out last week to coincide with the start of Lent, slide preparations, permissions e-mails, and travels have claimed my focus. I regret that all this revving up has come during a season dedicated to slowing down. Please forgive the slackness, but I’ve decided to practice the “holy pause” for the next forty days (through Easter Sunday). To fast from my obsession with productivity. I will still honor my obligation to those who have commissioned me for specific tasks, but I will be lightening up on the frequency of blog posts. In lieu of Lent-related Art & Theology content, I lift up the following supports for your journey.

Online devotional with visual art and music: Each Lenten season since 2012, Kevin Greene, an associate pastor at West End Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, has published an online devotional that comprises for each day an art image, a short scripture reading, a prayer, and a music file. I absolutely love this model, with its spare style: because the entries are light on text, they invite silence, contemplation, seeing, listening. Greene’s image selection is stellar. He doesn’t go for the obvious choices but rather aims at something more atmospheric, more slant. Among the painted subjects, for example, you’ll find a stairway, a storm, a dancer, a reaper; day 1, Ash Wednesday, was a sailboat on troubled waters (pictured below). Fine-art viewing isn’t something that’s typically a part of Protestant devotional practice, so in response to questions he’s received, Greene has described how art operates on the imagination and the spirit. I’ve been greatly blessed moving through the first week of Lent with this companion, and I can’t wait to dive into the backlist entries later on. You can sign up via e-mail in the left sidebar, or simply bookmark the website and visit it each morning.

Dark Red Sea by Emil Nolde
Emil Nolde (German, 1867–1956), Dark Red Sea, ca. 1938. Watercolor. Nolde Museum, Seebüll, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.

Lent Photo Challenge: The UK-based Bible Society invites people to take one photo per day throughout the season based on rotating themes (e.g., wilderness, hospitality, ask), then share them on social media using the hashtag #LentChallenge. Today is the sixth day of Lent (Sundays are excluded from the traditional forty-day count), and the assigned theme is “fear.”

#LentChallenge

Essays, short stories, poems, art: Founded in 1989, Image journal seeks “to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture.” This Lent they’ve curated a selection of literary essays, short stories, poems, and art images from their back issues and their blog, Good Letters, that relate to the season, as well as to Easter. I especially enjoyed “Jeffrey Mongrain: An Iconography of Eloquence.” A few selections might be accessible only to subscribers (you can subscribe here; you won’t be disappointed!). Also available: the book God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, a full-color devotional with contributions by some of Image’s favorites. Lent is not about becoming lost in our brokenness, the description says, but about cleansing the palate so that we can taste life more fully.

Blood Pool by Jeffrey Mongrain
Jeffrey Mongrain (American, 1956–), Blood Pool, 2006. Plexiglas, 47 × 88 in. Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, Columbia, South Carolina.

“Lent Is Here to Throw Us Off Again: Finding healing in repetition, community, and art” by W. David O. Taylor: An excellent introduction to Lent, addressing unselfing, dying a good death, opening up vacant space, and praying with the eyes. This Christianity Today article is adapted from the foreword Taylor wrote for artist James B. Janknegt’s new book, Lenten Meditations, which features forty of Janknegt’s paintings on the parables of Jesus, along with written reflections. Artists like Janknegt, Taylor writes, “fix before us an image of a world broken by our own doing, but not abandoned by God. They question our habits of sight. They arrest our attention. See this image. See it for the first time, again. See what has become hidden and distorted. See the neglected things. See the small but good things. It is in this way that artists can rescue us from what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls the ‘film of familiarity’ and the ‘lethargy of custom.’”

Lenten Meditations by James B. Janknegt

Parable of the Wicked Tenants by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), The Wicked Tenants, 2008. Oil on canvas, 24 × 72 in.

Stations of the Cross in Washington, DC: This Lent, Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing of the Church of the Epiphany have organized a combination pilgrimage and art exhibition, featuring works located throughout Washington, DC, in places both sacred and secular. Mostly contemporary, some newly commissioned, the works include George Segal’s Depression Bread Line, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial by Glenna Goodacre, Barnett Newman’s Stations cycle at the National Gallery of Art, a video installation at First Congregational United Church of Christ by Leni Diner Dothan, and more. Participants can follow the stations by downloading the app “Alight: Art and the Sacred,” which offers maps and audio commentary (my friend Peggy Parker is a contributor!). (If you don’t have a smartphone, you can view the maps and listen to the commentary through a browser by following the primary link above.) Also check out the accompanying devotional guide.

Vietnam Women's Memorial by Glenna Goodacre
Glenna Goodacre (American, 1939–), Vietnam Women’s Memorial, 1993. Bronze. 5 Henry Bacon Drive, Washington, DC.

Lent by The Brilliance: This 2012 EP by The Brilliance, a duo comprising David Gungor and John Arndt, has seven tracks: “Dust We Are,” “Now and at the Hour of Our Death” (the rerelease on Brother removes the invocation to Mary), “Dayspring of Life,” “Does Your Heart Break?,” “Holy Communion,” “Violent Loving God,” and “Have You Forsaken Me?” Each one is a beautiful prayer, the words organized around a string quartet. Some take the shape of praise, others lament. God is supplicated for peace, mercy, light. The first track well captures the spirit of Lent: “Be still my soul and let it go, just let it go.” Click here to read a 2015 Hallels interview with The Brilliance, or here to listen to a podcast interview by David Santistevan.