Good-bye, and thank you (see you at ArtandTheology.org)

I’m sad to remind you that, as I announced in November, I am discontinuing The Jesus Question—but I’m happy to let you know that my new blog, Art & Theology, is now live! Please show me some love and share the URL with your friends and social media followers and “Like” the Facebook page.

Art & Theology website

 

Art & Theology Facebook page

The Jesus Question started out as a project for a social media class in February 2011. The assignment was to develop a blog in which we were to explore a well-defined subject of interest, the purpose being to enhance our online presence, connect with others of like interests, experiment with web building and marketing, and establish ourselves as an authority in a field.

It may not have achieved a vast reach by professional standards (it gets about 7,000 unique views per month), but I feel pleased with how it was received and what came of it. It led to my becoming assistant editor of ArtWay.eu, republication on other websites, free books from publishers, invitations to speak at a few local college events, and my being interviewed for a book project.

The blog also resulted in e-mails and comments from readers all over the world—students, pastors, missionaries, liturgists, ethnographers, visual artists, musicians, poets, and practitioners of different faiths. I sincerely appreciate all the messages I received, even if I didn’t always have time to respond; truly, thank you. The thoughtful questions, insights, and resource recommendations helped direct my research and refine my thinking, and the words of encouragement were a tremendous blessing to me.

The reason I’ve decided to replace The Jesus Question is because its tagline is no longer representative of what it has become. I started out “tracing the identity of Jesus through history, art, and pop culture,” but in the last two years the blog has become heavily weighted on the “art” part, since that is how my interests happened to develop. As I spent more time reading books and articles about artists and art movements and exhibitions and churches’ engagement with the arts, I spent less time reading Jesus scholarship and looking for amusing manifestations of Jesus in popular culture.

Art & Theology will allow me to explore with greater freedom what has become my primary passion: promoting the arts for use in private and corporate worship.

Last June I attended my first major CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and it was that conference that has given me the impetus to say good-bye to this web project I’ve been nurturing for five years so that I can pursue a more dedicated study of the intersections between Christianity and the arts—especially the visual arts. The need for art interpreters in the church was mentioned independently by several speakers and panelists at the conference—a call to action that rang especially loud in my ears. There are a ton of artists in the church, they said, and in the last two decades there has been a steep rise in academic writing about the important ways in which art can serve the church, but what is missing is someone to train “non-art people” of faith in how to approach art, how to appreciate it, and to thereby help develop a more visually literate church culture. Hearing that art commentary from a Christian perspective is in demand really reaffirmed in me my calling to provide just that.

I realize it will be a particular challenge to reach the people I most want to reach. What would persuade someone who’s uninterested in art to click on a link to “art and theology,” or to stick with such a blog long enough that their curiosity has time to evolve into appreciation or even fondness?

It’s hard to leave The Jesus Question, because I didn’t end up addressing many of the topics I wanted to. In particular, I didn’t delve as much into the historicity of Jesus and New Testament criticism as I had set out to. My consolation is that there are hundreds of scholars out there, many of whom publish material online, who are more qualified than I to address such things.

This blog obviously doesn’t come close to exhausting the depth of who Jesus is or has become. I urge any one of you to pick up where I left off and keep the discussion going. As for artistic depictions of Christ, you can be sure that I will continue exploring those over at Art & Theology.

Peace Be with You by Roberto Lopez Lopez

Roberto López López (Mexican, 1977-), Peace Be with You, 2011. Acrylic on canvas.

Thank you so much, all of you, for your support over the years. You have been an encouragement to me in my spiritual walk, and I’ve enjoyed being a part of this virtual community of learners!

So with this final post, I now officially launch Art & Theology. Please visit me there and consider sharing the website with your family and friends, pastor, seminary professors, and coworkers.

The peace of Christ be with you now and always.

—Victoria Emily Jones

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The Pensive Christ (Rupintojelis) of Lithuania

Before Rodin’s The Thinker, there was the Pensive Christ.

Pensive Christ

Pensive Christ figurines by three contemporary Lithuanian artists: (from left to right) Tomas Ivanauskas (2001), Algirdas Juškevičius (2000), Svajūnas Motijoška (2001).

Dating back to the late fourteenth century, this iconographic type shows Jesus sitting on a stone, bent over, supporting his head with one hand while resting the other on his knee. Sometimes he is crowned with thorns, sometimes not, but either way he bears an expression of exhaustion and grief and is thus associated with the Passion.

Although the image first appeared in northern Germany, it is now most commonly associated with Lithuania, where the figure is called Rūpintojėlis (pronounced roo-pinto-YAY-lis): “the One Who Worries,” or “the Brooding One.” (“The Pensive Christ” is not a strict translation, but that is the name that has gained favor in the English-speaking world; “Christ in Distress” is another.) As Christianity spread throughout Lithuania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so did images of Rūpintojėlis, as the wandering woodcarvers (dievdirbiai) of native folk culture carved him into hollowed-out tree trunks wherever they went. Today he is found not only at crossroads and in forests but in churches, homes, cemeteries, and shops.

Lithuanians relate the figure to their own passion as a people, especially since having had endured persecution under the Soviet regime, including mass deportations to Siberian labor camps and other remote parts of the Soviet Union in the 1940s and ’50s. About 60 percent of the roughly 130,000 Lithuanian deportees either died in the camps or were never able to return to their homeland—a tragedy still mourned by Lithuanians each year on June 14, the date of the first major deportation (in 1941), which they call the “Day of Sorrow.” Others were executed as political prisoners.   Continue reading

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Stories about Jesus Christ, illustrated by David Popiashvili

The Moscow-based Institute for Bible Translation (IBT) exists to translate, publish, and distribute the Bible in the 130-plus languages of the non-Slavic peoples living in the Commonwealth of Independent States (that is, in former Soviet Union countries).

In 2002 the IBT published a Georgian edition of Stories about Jesus Christ, a children’s book based on the four New Testament Gospels. They commissioned Georgian artist David Popiashvili, who studied at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts, to create thirty-one illustrations for it. People responded so well to Popiashvili’s images that IBT decided to create a digital version of the book that includes Russian and English translations as well as the original Georgian. You can access this edition here.

Annunciation by David Popiashvili

The Good News about the Birth of Jesus

Baptism of Christ by David Popiashvili

The Baptism of Jesus

Walking on Water by David Popiashvili

Jesus Calms a Storm

Good Shepherd by David Popiashvili

The Good Shepherd

Agony in the Garden by David Popiashvili

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane

Christ carries his cross by David Popiashvili

Carrying His Own Cross

Continue reading

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Tee Time: Jesus Didn’t Tap

Jesus didn't tap

T-shirt_Jesus Didn't Tap (back)

Found at www.jesusdidnttap.com.

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Dallas Willard talks gospel, grace, and spiritual discipline

Dallas Willard (1935–2013) was among the greatest Christian writers of the last century, in my estimation. He was known for his accessible teachings on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and how to be in relationship with him. You can hear him speak on these topics in the twelve-minute interview below, from the 2010 Catalyst West conference.

 

When asked by interviewer John Ortberg to define Jesus’s gospel, Willard responds, “It’s how to get into heaven before you die.” Many evangelists, unfortunately, teach a grave distortion of that: that the gospel is all about attaining heaven after death.

In his preaching Jesus insisted again and again on the availability of the kingdom of God in the here and now. The Christian, Willard says, is one who has made the transition from a life lived on his or her own to the life that God is living in his kingdom. Thus the gospel is good news not only for the next life but for this life; it is the enactment of heavenly virtues, by the enablement of heavenly grace, on earth, for the good of all creation.

Willard corrects the mistaken notion that grace is only for the forgiveness of sins: “The sinner is not the one who uses a lot of grace; the saint uses more grace. The saint burns grace like a 747 burns fuel on takeoff, because everything they do is a manifestation of grace.”

One of the major problems with evangelical Christians today, according to Williard, is their passivity. Many tend to think of their salvation as an eternal-life contract they signed sometime in the past but which has no bearing on how they live in the present. For shame! cries Willard.

“Grace is not opposed to effort; it’s opposed to earning,” he says in this interview. “Effort is action; earning is attitude.”

Eternal life starts now—and yes, it is a gift, but it also requires the Christian to actively live into it.

The Kingdom Comes by Nikhil Halder

Nikhil Halder (Bangladeshi), The Kingdom Comes, 1978. Painted for the inaugural conference of the Asian Christian Art Association.

For book-length treatments of these topics by Willard, see The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God and The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Life. See also his article “Spiritual Formation: What It Is, and How It Is Done.”

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Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee

Many of you know Maria von Trapp as the singing nun-turned-governess in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews immortalized the character in the 1965 film adaptation.

Though the musical contains fictionalized details, Maria von Trapp (née Kutschera) was, in fact, a real person. The Sound of Music is based on her memoir, which recounts her experience as a novice monastic, her time as tutor to the seven children of the widowed naval officer Georg von Trapp, her later decision to accept Georg’s marriage proposal, the formation of the Trapp Family Singers, and the family’s flight from Austria after the Nazi takeover. (Georg was offered a commission in the German Navy but refused on ideological grounds and was therefore under threat of arrest.)

Sound of Music escape scene

Film still from the final scene of The Sound of Music. In actuality the Trapp family did not escape over the Alps to freedom in Switzerland. Instead they traveled by train to Italy, and went from there to America, where they embarked on a nationwide singing tour before finally settling in Stowe, Vermont.

Maria was a woman who loved Jesus and who wrote about his life and personal influence in several books. In Yesterday, Today, and Forever, she shares how Jesus’s story entered into the life and imagination of her family. She identified strongly, for example, with his early status as refugee, because just as Jesus had to flee the wrath of Herod and make a new home for himself in another country, so did she and her family have to flee the wrath of Hitler and reestablish themselves in a foreign land.

Escaping the authorities required a lot of courage, and Maria found it in Jesus’s show of solidarity. She was sure to point out to her kids how their circumstances could help them better understand the context into which Jesus was born and spent the first several years of his life:

“Children,” I said, “I feel as though we were at the beginning of a great discovery. It seems as if Herod isn’t really dead. He keeps living under different names, like Saul and Nero, or Hitler and Stalin. He still seeks the child to destroy Him.” How close Our Lord and His family had become all of a sudden when we met them as fellow refugees! (16, emphasis mine)

Throughout the book Maria muses on the fearsomeness and loneliness of the refugee journey, gently criticizing those artists who would mislead us into assuming it to be anything other:   Continue reading

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Adoration of the Magi bark painting from Papua New Guinea

The organization Wycliffe Bible Translators is committed to translating the Bible not only into all the world’s written languages but into its visual languages as well.

In 2011 Wycliffe missionary Peter Brook commissioned artist Nanias Maira, who belongs to the Kwoma people group of northwestern Papua New Guinea, to paint Bible stories in the traditional style for which he is locally known. Using the Kwoma palette of red, black, and white, Maira painted several pieces on the Genesis creation account and some on the early life of Jesus.

When these paintings were presented to the Kwoma people, their response was, “These are ours!” They were excited to see their culture honored in the telling of the gospel and were thus more receptive to it, more engaged.

Papua New Guinea nativity

Nanias Maira (Kwoma/Papua New Guinea, 1975-), Ner Wiynmaiy, 2011. Painting on sago palm bark. Photo: Peter Brook.

Maira’s painting Ner Wiynmaiy depicts a happy, naked baby Jesus framed by the Star of Bethlehem. The Three Magi sit below in adoration of the newborn king.

For more information on Brook’s role with Wycliffe and Maira’s art, see “Ethno Arts and the Gospel” on the Wycliffe website.

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John O’Donohue reads his poem “The Nativity”

Renowned Irish poet John O’Donohue (1956–2008) wrote a poem on each of the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, a set of meditations on key events in the life of Jesus. These are published, along with other poems, in his 2001 volume Conamara Blues. You can hear O’Donohue recite his poem on the Joyful Mystery of the Nativity below. Read along here.

The poem makes ample use of water imagery: Jesus starts as a drop in Mary’s belly that widens into a ripple; the amniotic fluid gathers like a wave almost ready to break; Jesus prepares to “come ashore”; Mary fights back a “tide of tears.”

It emphasizes the physicality of Mary’s pregnancy and labor, declaring (obliquely) in the first two lines how a woman’s menstruation ceases during gestation, then moving on to birthing fluids and rounded bellies and heaving and “red wires of pain.”

Although an ordained priest in the Catholic Church, O’Donohue apparently rejected its teaching on the painless delivery of Christ. Like all biological mothers, Mary experienced the pangs of childbirth. The contractions, the stretching, the pushing, the ripping, the exhaustion.

But unlike any other mother, Mary brought forth, in a literal way, Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.

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Christmas isn’t over

Madonna and Child mosaic

Mosaic by David Hetland, Trinity Lutheran Church, Morehead, Minnesota.

Excerpt from The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ’s Coming by Wendy M. Wright, pp. 116–17:

The church does not abandon the celebration of Christmas on December twenty-sixth. Liturgically, the season stretches out for twelve more days and culminates on the Feast of Epiphany, January sixth. In earlier days, in England, these days were kept as a time of merriment during which ancient customs, such as lighting twelve bonfires for the twelve apostles, were observed. It was also a time of gift-giving; the familiar carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” regales modern carolers with the antics of an eighteenth-century merrymaker who sent his true love a veritable barnyard and theater company of presents as well as a partridge in a pear tree. . . .

Our commercially oriented American society has little room for this kind of delightful, fanciful lingering over a season. Christmas comes to a screeching halt for us the day after. The only vestiges of merriment are found in the after-Christmas sales, where opportunistic shoppers can be found rummaging through bins of marked down merchandise that only a few days before radiated the possibility of being the answer to someone’s Christmas gift wish. The frenzy of holiday partying subsides, and Americans begin to look with grim determination toward the fashioning of New Year’s resolutions to lose those accumulated pounds, kick that pernicious habit, or do something better.

That the season is over, in the secular public arena, is obvious from the fact that store decorations quickly disappear and the spate of holiday specials broadcast on television are suddenly eclipsed by reruns of old movies and last year’s serials. Even in the domestic realm, the vestiges of the season vanish. I am always startled to see how many upended Christmas trees, tinsel clinging to their stiff, twisted branches, top the piles of debris set out on the sidewalks for the city sanitary engineers to take away on December twenty-sixth.

I personally often suffer a mild sort of postpartum depression the day after the Coming itself. All the anticipation of waiting and the heightened experience of the birth day itself are now memories, and we are left with the miracle in our arms and the overwhelming sensation that we have only just been initiated into the truth of it: that we are called to nurture and raise to maturity what has been given. We become aware that we must live, as well as anticipate, the Coming.

Most churches stubbornly resist the cultural amnesia that pervades the atmosphere and keep reminding us, through the proclamation of the word, the images of the Christmas crib, and the melodies of the songs of the season, that Christmas is still very much with us. And many homes stay decorated with signs of the wondrous birth. I have never been able to take our tree down until after Epiphany, even when brittle needles litter the floor, and the presents that blossomed under it have long since been put away. For the days following the Feast of the Nativity are rich in insight and wisdom. They are the days when we contemplate the Christ given to us, the days when the great task of living into the reality of our spiritual maternity is ours to ponder. They are, in some sense, not unlike the first days home after the trip to the hospital, or the time after the midwife or the last helpful female relative leaves you, at last, on your own. You are faced with both the wonderful, frustrating, impenetrable joy and the anxiety-filled responsibility of attending to new life.

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More Nativity Paintings from around the World

Four years ago on Christmas Day I posted a selection of nativity paintings originating mainly in non-Western cultures. Each year since then that post has ranked as one of the five most-read posts on this site, with over twelve thousand views to date. So I’ve decided to do a part 2.

My friend Scott Rayl shared a quote with me this week by S. D. Gordon: “Jesus was God spelling Himself out in language humanity could understand.” What a succinct summary of the Incarnation!

Today we celebrate the transcendent God made immanent, accessible. We celebrate his new name: Emmanuel, God-with-us. The artists here can aid us in that celebration.

 

Australia (Aboriginal):

Aboriginal nativity

Mawalan Marika (Rirratjingu/Australian, 1908-1967), Nativity, ca. 1960. Natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark, 109.5 x 33.8 cm.

First Nations of Canada:

Nativity by Jackson Beardy

Jackson Beardy (Oji-Cree, 1944-1984), The Nativity, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 121.1 x 172.1 cm.

Guatemala:

Nazareth by John Giuliani

Father John Battista Giuliani (Italian American, 1932-), Nazareth. Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in.

Nicaragua: 

Nicaraguan nativity

Nativity mural at Batahola Norte Community Center, Managua, Nicaragua.

India:

Nativity by Angelo da Fonseca

Angelo da Fonseca (Indian, 1902-1967), Nativity, 1954.

Thailand: 

Nativity by Sawai Chinnawong

Sawai Chinnawong (Thai, 1959-), Nativity, 2002. Oil on canvas.

China:

Nativity by Lu Lan

Lu Lan, Nativity, 1994.

Japan:

Japanese Nativity

Hiroshi Tabata (Japanese), Nativity, 1998.

Korea:

Korean Nativity

Kim Hueng Jong (Korean, 1928-), Christmas Scene.

Vietnam: 

Nativity by Le Van Dai

Le Van Dai (Vietnamese), Nativity, 1980s. Watercolor on paper.

Philippines: 

Nativity by Federico Dominguez

Federico Dominguez (Filipino, 1953-), from the “Yang ya Utaw si Manggob” (When Manggob Was Born) series. Gouache on Bristol board, 12 x 12 in. Collection of Mike Luz.

Indonesia:

Nativity by Gde Sukana Kariana

Gde Sukana Kariana (Indonesian, 1974-), Nativity, 2011. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm.

Nigeria:

Yoruba Nativity

Father Kevin Carroll (born Britain, active Nigeria, 1920-1993), Yoruba Nativity, 1948. Oil on canvas, 24 x 36 in.

Ethiopia:

Ethiopian Nativity

Contemporary Ethiopian nativity icon.

Kenya:

Nativity by Elimo Njau

Elimo Njau (born Tanzania, active Kenya, 1932-), Nativity, 1959. Fresco, 12 x 15 ft. St. James’ Anglican Cathedral, Kiharu, Murang’a, Kenya.

Tanzania:

Tanzanian Nativity

Tanzanian nativity batik.

South Africa:

Nativity by Azaria Mbatha

Azaria Mbatha (South African, 1941-), The Birth of Christ, 1964. Linocut, 30.4 x 54.4 cm. University of Zululand Art Gallery, KwaDlangezwa, South Africa.

(Many of the Asian artworks in this post were found through the Asian Christian Art Association website. It’s a really rich resource. Check it out!)

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