On Singing a New Song:

Yesterday, Advent started. As the season begins we note that we are in a time of waiting. To wait, means to anticipate what lies ahead, everything is not yet as it should be. The world is still tense and broken. The poor are shut outside the city gates, they hunger and thirst. The mourners weep, our grief is raw. Many are hated, excluded, reviled, persecuted.

But Advent begins, also, with a symbol of hope: a single candle lit against the lingering dark. The darkness does not overcome it. 

Recognizing that all is not as it should be, is to say the moment we are longing for has not arrived. We are here, in the in-between, and honestly, it feels like we’re all singing the same old song. This is where I live my life. I am a middle-age-man, vocationally frustrated and feeling stuck. I am a chrysalis, life is stasis. I no longer crawl but I have yet to become, to break free into the light, to stretch out my wings and grab the sky.

Do you feel this too? Does life feel stuck? We sing the old songs: ♪ ♫ Clowns to the Right, Jokers to the Left and I’m Stuck in the Middle with You ♪♫ Or: ♪♫  I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.

I came across these words from Augustine in Martin Shannon’s My Soul Waits (Paraclete, 2017)  yesterday morning:

Strip off the oldness; you know a new song. A new person, a New Covenant, a new song. People stuck in the old life have no business with this new song; only those who are new persons can learn it, renewed by grace and throwing off the old, sharers in the kingdom of heaven. All our love yearns toward that kingdom, and in its longing our life sings a new song. Let us sing this song not only with our tongues, but with our lives. (5)

Jesus is coming and has come, and though we wait, and all is not as it should be, we can sing a new song! This is a season of hope. What does it mean for us, today, to yearn toward the Kingdom? How do we sing a new song and sing our way to a new way of being? What is our new song?

O Light of the World, shine in our darkness. 

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Ecumenical Aesthetics: a ★★★★★book review

Over the last few years, there has been a flowering of Christians of all stripes engaged in the visual arts. This has been a vehicle for shared communion between Christians of different ecclesial traditions—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. The Ecumenism of Beauty reflects the deepening and mutual dialogue across denominational lines. Each tradition brings their own peculiar emphasis and theological understanding to the arts.

ecumenism-of-beautyI’ll note my brief criticism from the outset: this book is missing a page with contributor bios. Maybe I am an odd duck, but when I pick up a multi-author volume, I always turn to the contributor page first. Often this only has where they were educated and their current position, but it helps me place their perspective, tradition and what each brings to a topic. Luckily a few of these names were familiar to me and a few paragraphs into each chapter, I knew, in general, what discipline and tradition each author were writing from. There was Timothy Verdon, the book’s editor and eminent historian of Christian, religious art, JérômeCottin and William Dyrness, both active in the theology of arts and culture, Vasileios Marinis, an expert in Byzantine iconography, artists Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi and Martin Shannon, an ordained Episcopal pastor and devotional author.

Verdon’s introduction sets the stage. He describes the difference between the classical Catholic and Protestant aesthetic, as depicted two 16th century paintings. Pieter Neefs the Elder painted Antwerp Cathedral full of ornate iconography, priests and parishioners and sacramental flourish.  Pieter Jansz’s painting of the interior of St. Odulphuskerk reveals an austere sanctuary where the pulpit alone looks grand. Verdon comments on how the interior of these two churches reflect the beliefs and practices of both Catholics and Protestants—Catholic belief in salvation through ecclesial signs and the solo Scriptura of Lutheranism (ix).

Protestant and especially Calvinists (enthusiastic iconoclasts that they were) are faulted for their lack of religious aesthetic. See, for example, Andrew Greeley’s Catholic Imagination (which in memory argued that everything beautiful created by Christians came from Catholics, whereas Protestants were just good at analyzing stuff). However the first two chapters of this volume expose how much this is a gross oversimplifiation. Cottin points out that Calvin had no problem with images, only images used as props for devotion (@) and he points to accomplished Western artists influenced by Calvinist culture (i.e Jacob van Ruysdael, Vermeer, Pieter de Hoock, Vincent Van Gogh) (9). Dyrness’s points out that Calvin’s concern about idolatry caused him to put a moratorium on religious imagery, but he asks “Why after 500 years, when Protestants are learning again from medieval practices—praying the labyrinth, practicing lectio divina, and embracing Igantian spiritual practices and retreats—are their worship spaces, and their corporate prayer, so often devoid of visual beauty?” (19) He argues that the time is ripe for an aesthetical recovery.

Kanaga, one of the artist contributors describes her life as part of the Community of Jesus, and her commission (along with sculpter Regis Damange) to design elements of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA and discuss her art and practice. Kanaga sees abstract sacred art as the perfect vehicle to communicate the indefinite and the ineffible (31-32). Marinis’s chapter opens up the spirituality of Byzantine iconography with insights from Fotis Kontoglou 1895-1965) Rossi describes how visual art is an act of contemplation, especially for the artist in the creative process. Shannon’s chapter describes the physical space of the Church of the Transfiguration and the way beauty draws the eccumenical, Benedictine community into worship. Verdon’s closing chapter reflects on the interplay between Art and liturgy.

As this book focuses on the relationship between beauty and ecclesiology as I read I kept thinking of what historical theologians call the Medieval transcendentals: the true, the beautiful and the good. In an earlier time, these were all held in tension, as each reflecting something important about God. Evangelicals of the protestant tradition, my tribe, were suspicious of beauty as ephemeral and idolatrous, but we emphasized truth and goodness (and two out of three ain’t bad).  However, we are in the midst of a recovery of Protestant theological aesthetics and religious art. This book extends the dialogue between Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, while honoring the differences and contributions of each tradition.

Appropriately this book is also beautiful, with full-color images on glossy pages. I think Rossi and Kanaga’s chapters were my favorite contributions, not only because they showcased their beautiful artwork, but because they reflected on their spiritual experience as artists. I give this five stars and recommend it to anyone concerned about art and the church—★★★★★

Praying the Psalms Toward Easter: a book review

It is through the psalmists’ syntax, imagery, and bold cries that we learn to pray. With laments and petitions and songs of thanksgiving and gratitude, the Psalms name dimensions of the spiritual life. My devotional life has been enriched by praying psalms. After all, Psalms is the prayer book of the church and source of Jesus’ own prayers.  according-to-your-mercy

 According to Your Mercy by Martin Shannon, CJ is a Lenten devotional with daily readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Shannon, is an Episcopal priest, liturgist, author and member of the Community of Jesus on Cape Cod, MA. In each of the forty-seven daily readings,  Shannon offers a brief commentary, a quotation from one of the Church Fathers, and a short poetic, prayerful response to the daily psalm. While the entries follow the Lenten calendar, most of the psalms he uses aren’t placed in a particular order (with the exception the psalms for Holy Week). “They are simply a collection of prayers that reflect various twists and turns on the Lenten Journey.  As a season of penitence, Lent lends itself to such meandering for, when all is said and done, we know where we will end up” (introduction, xi).

The first reading begins with Psalm 121 (“I lift my eyes unto the mountains? Where does my help come from?), reflecting on the pilgrims’ journey to Jerusalem (one of the Songs of Ascent). A quotation from Augustine reflects on the promise of Divine protection. The selection of other Church Fathers cited includes saints from the third to eighth centuries, both East and West. Paraclete

I am excited to delve into this devotional. Shannon is a thoughtful reader of the Psalms and his selections, reflections and quotations seem well suited for Lent. The book shall be my companion in the days ahead.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Angels from the Realm of Glory: a book review

We are currently midway through Advent—a season bookended by Annunciation and the angels singing, “Glory to God in the Highest and peace to people on earth.” The angels figure prominently in the stories we tell and the carols we sing, though we know (or suppose) angels  aren’t just God’s seasonal hires. They are not simply holiday apparitions, angels are God’s servants. But what are they like? What do we know about them?

I grew up fascinated by angels. When I was young, my parents tucked me in each night with prayers that God would send His angels to look after me. A couple of  perilous events caused my grandma to proclaim that my guardian angel was working overtime. I watched the angels on television imagining the halo hidden under Michael Landon’s coiffed hair and being moved by Della Reese’s maternal care.  I  heard popular treatment of angels which treat these divine messengers as our very special friends.

all-gods-angelsAll God Angels: Loving & Learning from Angelic Messengers by Fr. Martin Shannon is a new devotional exploring the depiction of angels in the Bible. Shannon is an Episcopal priest and is a member of the ecumenical Community of Jesus in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  Twenty-four entries examine the angelic realm through Scripture and sacred art. Shannon’s exploration begins with the Cherubim gatekeeper of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24) and ends with the revelator Angel of the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:1-3). Each entry is paired with a full-color depiction of the biblical scene described from artists range from Fra Angelico to Marc Chagall.  There are also ancient icons, frescos and mosaics.

Shannon’s title is a slight misnomer. While he provides a broad overview of angelic visitations of the Bible, he doesn’t explore all God’s angels (just a multitude of heavenly hosts). The scary ones are under represented. We read of the angels at Abraham’s table in Genesis 18, but not how two of these angels would go on their way and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). There is  no treatment of the angel of death killing the Egyptian-firstborn (Exodus 11-12),  or the ambivalent captain of the Lord’s army which Joshua encounters (Josh. 5:13-15). The angels of Revelation are discussed, without a mention of them pouring out bowls of wrath against humanity. Shannon emphasizes, instead, their angelic commitment to God’s service.

There are other biblical angels which escape Shannon’s mention; yet despite their absence, he is great at exploring the angels’ role as messenger, minister and mediator of God’s presence. The angels described are used by God at significant turning points in the Biblical narrative (i.e. the Fall, the time of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, exile, Christ’s birth, the start of his ministry, his death, resurrection and ascension and at the end).

What I most appreciated about Shannon’s treatment is the way he captures what angels are all about. They aren’t simply our special friends but God’s servants. My fascination with angels transformed to wonder as I read; however I was nowhere tempted to see these angels as objects of worship. They are simply wholly committed to the God, enacting God’s will and bringing God’s presence  to God’s people. This book may be nominally about the angels, Shannon focus (and the Angel’s) remains fastened on the God the angels serve.

I recommend this book to anyone fascinated by angels and would like a biblical, devotional treatment of the significant role they play, and what they have to teach us. I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.