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)

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.