Art

Christian Art and the 'Ministry of Imagination'

Graffiti on the wall of the abandoned building in Zelenogorsk City, Russia. TatyanaKokoulina / Shutterstock.com

Of course good art is in the eye of the beholder, but I define good art to be creations of paint, music, or stories that speak profoundly to the human condition and break open our imagination beyond what already is. Much of what is qualified as “Christian” art or music has instead done the opposite. It shuts down possibilities by offering a script to be consumed. Instead of creating space for genuine exploration of questions about God — who God is, what God does, where God can be found, etc. — Christian art supplies manufactured answers in a new marketing package. We have struggled to rise up into a prophetic imagination to speak against the dominant consumer culture. If anything, the subculture has been subsumed by consumerism.

The Living and the Unforgotten

TUVIA RUEBNER HAS earned the lament he wrote for King David, Israel’s better-known sorrow bearer. The poet came into the world 91 years ago in Pressburg-Bratislava, Slovakia, under Nazism’s shadow. It is a shadow he managed to separate himself from physically, but which sticks to him philosophically and is at the core of his poetry. The parched sound of random loss is the root sound in many of his poems. The spawn of an unimaginable yesterday, Tuvia Ruebner is more than anything a poet of today.

His parents, his grandparents, and his little sister Litzi all perished at Auschwitz in 1942, a year after he immigrated to British Mandate Palestine. Forty years after their deaths, Ruebner’s first son, Moran, was sent to fight in Israel’s first Lebanese war. Moran left for South America the following year, estranged from his country and its wars, and after a few letters, was never heard from again.

In Ruebner’s poem “[My father was murdered],” one by one he enumerates his losses:

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New & Noteworthy

Contemporary History
The duo Ibeyi are Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz, 19-year-old French-Cuban twins with Yoruba roots—a West African culture transplanted to Cuba during slavery. Ibeyi’s self-titled album begins and ends in prayer; in between is a fusion of English and Yoruba, minimalist piano and percussion, jazz and hip hop. XL Recordings

Preach It
The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Volume 2 brings together more than 50 sermons by the biblical scholar and powerful preacher, arranged according to the liturgical year. Also includes special-occasion sermons and a scripture index. A good resource for pastors and laity alike. Westminster John Knox

Sketching the Word
In And the Word Became Color: Exploring the Bible with Paper, Pen, and Paint, artist and teacher Debby Topliff describes what she calls “visual lectio divina”—a method of Bible study that incorporates simple line drawings. Debbytopliff.com

Soul Seedlings
Faith Forward Volume 2: Re-imagining Children’s and Youth Ministry collects stories, insights, and models from the 2014 Faith Forward gathering on nurturing the spiritual lives of young people. Edited by David M. Csinos and Melvin Bray, with a foreword by Jennifer Knapp. CopperHouse

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The Problem with Creating ‘Christian’ Versions of Things

Photo via Fotocafe Photography / RNS

A collection of Julia Chew is showcased during 2015 Christian Fashion Week. Photo via Fotocafe Photography / RNS

If someone offered you the chance to live in a world designed to look and feel like the real one, but is actually a tidier, more ordered Stepford-ish facsimile, would you take it? For many Christians today, the answer appears to be yes.

Call it Newton’s Third Law of modern Christianity, but for every event, there appears to be an equal and opposite corresponding Christian event. There are Christian music festivals and book festivals; Christian versions of TED Talks; the upcoming International Christian Film Festival in Orlando, Fla.; and earlier this month, even a Christian Fashion Week.

While it might seem tempting for Christians to lock themselves away in anti-secular bubbles, where they could wear nothing but Christian clothing and eat nothing but Christian food (Chick-fil-A, I’m guessing?), the ramifications of doing so are polarizing at best, and deeply destructive at worst.

Just look at the recent spate of religious freedom laws being passed around the country. Regardless of whether you view the RFRAs as discriminatory or necessary, the nut of their existence essentially boils down to separateness.

At their core, they are laws designed to keep one group of people from being forced to interact with another.

"This is how we fight terrorism": Saving Syria's sacred music

The destruction and looting of art and historical sites in Syria is " the worst cultural disaster since the Second World War,” according to anthropologist Brian L. Daniels.

The human losses are devastating: At least 210,000 people have died in the ongoing battle between the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels. ISIS has joined the violence and exploited the instability in the country, taking control of large parts of northern and eastern Syria.

And now, in the unofficial war over Syria’s cultural heritage, art is the main casualty. As of September 2014, five out of six of Syria’s Word Heritage sites had been destroyed including Aleppo’s 12th century Umayyad mosque.

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The Play's the Thing

WHEN I FIRST arrived in a western district of Georgia, on the shores of the Black Sea, in 2004, I met a group of young people walking along the muddy dirt road to school. They were walking slowly, linking arms and talking and laughing together. Like teenagers anywhere, the young people were happy to talk about their own lives: tensions with parents, boredom at school, friends, and anticipation of the future.

The girls that I spoke with also mentioned their fears of being abducted for marriage.

Surprisingly, in this modern era, the abduction of girls for marriage was still considered common and acceptable. In rural Georgia, if a young man fancied a young woman, he arranged with his friends to have her abducted as she walked home from school. If she was held overnight away from her home (and often raped), her chaste reputation was lost, and she had no choice but to leave school, marry him, and move in with his family. Honor demanded it.

In rural Georgian high schools, rumors flew about who was about to be kidnapped, or who was thinking of kidnapping someone. Boys thought it was romantic and a test of bravery and manhood. Almost all the boys we spoke with said they would help a friend abduct a girl if requested, and many said they felt pressured by their friends to abduct girls. It was seen as a way of proving yourself a man, a true Georgian man.

Most girls were afraid of being abducted, but some girls I spoke with had mixed feelings, wondering if they could manage to elope with their boyfriends using a traditional kidnapping story as the cover to overcome their parents’ disapproval.

Parents also commented on the problem. One mother of a teenage girl said, “When I was in school, kidnapping girls for marriage was a big problem. In order to be a ‘real man’ and demonstrate his bravery, a boy had to kidnap a girl. But girls did not think kidnapping was romantic. They saw it for what it was—violence.”

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An Iconic Faith

FRANCISCAN BROTHER ROBERT LENTZ is a contradictory blend of traditional and tradition-challenging. That same surprising mix could be said to typify his contemporary approach to the ancient art of iconography.

Brother Robert’s work adorns cathedrals, churches, and homes of many faiths, though his name may not ring a bell, even among his fans.

But describe his icons of Martin Luther King Jr. or César Chávez, his portrayals of Jesus as black, Korean, and Navajo, and his non-Christian subjects including Mohandas Gandhi and the Sufi mystic Rumi, and the response may be “Oh, yes! I have one of those.”

Icons—religious paintings used as aids in Christian prayer—have been called a “doorway into the kingdom of heaven.” Brother Robert’s icons are striking, often for the contemporary twists in classically structured images, such as the army canteen held by St. Toribio Romo, a 20th century Mexican priest who is revered as the patron of migrants crossing the border. His Chávez image carries a copy of the Constitution and wears a sweatshirt with the United Farmworkers logo. “Icons may contain anachronisms,” he said, “when there is a great truth at stake.”

Brother Robert’s work—and his life—seem often to focus on such anachronisms in pursuit of truth. At 67, he is a Roman Catholic Franciscan brother in the New York-based Holy Name Province, living and working in a studio created for him in the order’s seminary near Washington, D.C. A religious brother is not a priest, though he lives by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and dedicates his life to charitable service. It’s Brother Robert’s second stretch as a Franciscan, the order founded by St. Francis of Assisi. But it’s his third stint in religious life, having also come close to ordination as a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

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The Space Between the Notes

Sheet music, Franz Metelec / Shutterstock.com

Sheet music, Franz Metelec / Shutterstock.com

The French composer Claude Debussy once said, "Music is the space between the notes." His compositions were a part of Impressionism in music, a movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that focused on suggestion and atmosphere and favored short forms of music like nocturnes, arabesques, and preludes. This movement was a correction of the excesses of the Romantic period, where the focus was on strong emotion and the depiction of stories and the favor was toward long forms of music like symphonies and concertos.

Tapping the Sacred Power of Song

MUSIC IS OFTEN regarded and consumed as something that fills a space—the chords of an organ resounding off the walls of a sanctuary, the beats of a drum circle riding on the breeze through a park, the harmonies of an orchestra flowing from my headphones into my ears as I write. Music even transcends physical spaces to permeate the heart and the soul with emotion.

In Music as Prayer, pastor and musician Thomas H. Troeger invites the reader to cherish and engage in music as an act of prayer. Taking into account the metaphorical, scientific, and practical aspects of music-making, Troeger illustrates the power of music to not only fill a space but to also clear a way for meaning and creativity. Building upon Henry Ward Beecher’s metaphor of a boat stuck on the shore, Troeger describes how the “mighty ocean-tone” of a church organ brings the “tide” needed to lift up the members of the congregation and set them free from the shore.

In what Troeger calls a “dialogic process,” music lends rich metaphors to language and changes the effect of language upon the listener. The same song played in two distinct styles can convey two completely different sets of emotions.

From the ancient flute invented 35,000 years ago to today’s smartphone streaming songs on demand, music has occupied a central part of the human story. The mystery of music lies in the way that sound waves can blend into melodies that speak directly to the human yearning for wholeness. Creating space for both celebration and lament, music has the capacity to hold opposing emotions in the same breath. Music can provide release from suppressed inner tension and give voice to even the most unspeakable emotions.

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