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Lent

Fragmented Prayers and Contemporary Art

How the Christian story helps us understand modern art

By Heather Peterson, from Humane Pursuits

The lyrics fall and lift, peeking under and setting down emotions layered within me. The soft-eyed young man sings with a pure sound as he plays his guitar. Afterwards a second songwriter gathers his textured voice into a rock beat, summoning us, his audience, into personal and biblical stories.

“Who did you enjoy most?” I ask my friend in the car, and she tells me the final vocal artist because she loved his narrative style, and I say the first because I could feel what he was saying. It’s not that one option is better than another (my friend writes her own songs with nuanced emotions), but I wonder if we sometimes favor the narrative but neglect the expressions of fragmented emotions as too incomprehensible.

Grim sinks hang on a wall. The holes for the missing knobs are empty eyes, the basins yawning mouths. The photo of this image is featured above an article by Daniel A. Siedell, an art scholar. He writes that the artist Roger Gober creates the sinks without drains, indicating a lack of fulfilled expectations. [i] Siedell’s point is that Christians avoid contemporary art like this that’s dark and hard to understand. I get it.

A sculpture of a naked, bruised body of a woman left me dumbstruck when I attended a Kiki Smith exhibit on a date with the man who is now my husband. I haven’t sought out unfamiliar contemporary art since. But Siedell recognizes such art as a prayer to an “unknown god.” He says, “to hear this prayer, Christians need to recognize their own vulnerability and fragility rather than expecting art to affirm our piety and power.”kiki_sixgirls

Can I accept art that grieves me with half-told tales of human ruin? Can I accept art that I cannot explain?

Organic and abstract, occasionally sensual, my friend’s pencil drawings are not pictorially representative except for the content their viewers project into them. In one, I could nestle in a rounded white space and nap. They make me feel without words. My art group talks about an opportunity to show them in a church setting, and excitement beats within me. We need these, I think, to look at and marvel about but not have answers to questions about their meaning.

Encounters with contemporary art could release us to acknowledge our own stratums of emotions that meld indecipherably. Words aren’t always necessary. In Scripture, people tear their clothes at terrible news. Sometimes, we wail incoherently when someone dies. Other times, it is a shred of a prayer: gasping on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” from Psalm 22.

s06pcongWe Christians tout our metanarrative, where in the end there is justice and reconciliation and a Savior with blinding white robes. Yet I live desperately trying to tie up my personal narrative’s frayed ends. Many people I know have lost loved ones in the last half year. Some of the deaths were senseless and unjust. If we search vainly for a divine reason, some meaning missed, we risk compartmentalization of our hearts and further despair.

Like Jesus, I can lament in fragments when the time comes and sometimes just moan with my hands turned up. And like Job, there is a time to cover my mouth and listen. When I encounter contemporary art, may I honor mute and bleak expression as fundamental to being human. May I plead with God to help me and the artists for a trust in the bigger and better Story.

[i] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/januaryfebruary/prayers-at-museum-of-modern-art.html?share=BQ%2bl%2faRHAYnNtoKULB8vz4%2fGJP1ZEF09

Malcolm Guite's Transfiguration poem

Here we share a poem from our upcoming March 28 speaker, Malcolm Guite, for Lent. (Register now for the event!) Malcolm explains: "Continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet about the Transfiguration, when we remember how the Disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The feast of the Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but The transfiguration is also the set reading for many churches on the Sunday before Lent. And just before Lent is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples on the journey with Christ towards Jerusalem, towards the events of Holy Week, and through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem."

(You can also listen to Malcolm read the poem here)

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’, On that one mountain where all moments meet, The daily veil that covers the sublime In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet. There were no angels full of eyes and wings Just living glory full of truth and grace. The Love that dances at the heart of things Shone out upon us from a human face And to that light the light in us leaped up, We felt it quicken somewhere deep within, A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope Trembled and tingled through the tender skin. Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

"This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies also available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle."

Register now for our event with Malcolm:

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Seen on Facebook

You know you have a fabulous church community when a quick glance at Facebook after Resurrection Sunday worship finds you these posts by church members: "Rosing from the Dead" by Paul J. Willis

Shared by Michelle Hindman

We are on our way home from Good Friday service. It is dark. It is silent. "Sunday," says Hanna, "Jesus will be rosing from the dead."

It must have been like that. A white blossom, or maybe a red one, pulsing from the floor of the tomb, reaching round the Easter stone and levering it aside with pliant thorns.The soldiers overcome with the fragrance and Mary at sunrise mistaking the dawn-dewed Rose of Sharon for the untameable Gardener.

From The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

Shared by Sarah Clarkson

"Suddenly Faramir stirred, and he opened his eyes, and he looked on Aragorn who bent over him; and a light of knowledge and love was kindled in his eyes, and he spoke softly.

'My lord, you called me, I come. What does the king command?'

'Walk no more in the shadows, but awake!' said Aragorn...

'I will, lord,' said Faramir. 'For who would lie idle when the king has returned?'"

From Paradise Lost by John Milton

Shared by Brian Brown

“Oh goodness infinite, goodness immense! That all this good of evil shall produce, And evil turn to good; more wonderful Than that which by creation first brought forth Light out of darkness! Full of doubt I stand, Whether I should repent me now of sin By me done, and occasioned; or rejoice Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring; To God more glory, more good-will to men From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.”

From poet and Anglican priest John Donne

Shared by Matt Burnett

We think that Paradise and Calvary, Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place; Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me; As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face, May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

Heard after our Resurrection Sunday service, in which we pass out bells and ring them loudly every time anybody says "Alleluia!"

Shared by Brian Brown

"Easter at Holy Trinity--WE don't need any more cowbell!"

He is Risen!

John Milton, Paradise Lost:

“Oh goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done, and occasioned; or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring;
To God more glory, more good-will to men
From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.”