Poem analysis: “Gratefulness” by George Herbert

The first two lines of George Herbert’s poem “Gratefulness,” a petitionary prayer to God, are often quoted at this time of year: “Thou that hast given so much to me, give one more thing: a grateful heart.” It’s a sweet quote, and it does capture the poem’s main thrust, but it deserves to be looked at it in the context of the eight-stanza whole to which it belongs.

“Gratefulness” by George Herbert

Thou that hast giv’n so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast giv’n him heretofore
Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
And comes.

This not withstanding, thou wentst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay thou hast made a sigh and groan
Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love
Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain
Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.


In the poem the speaker boldly asks God to give him yet another gift: a spirit of gratitude. He then engages in lofty rhetoric in an attempt to convince God of the rightfulness of his request.

Here’s my paraphrase of Herbert’s words:   Continue reading

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Jesus, the church’s fiancé

Greg Boyd’s description of the church’s marital engagement to Christ on pages 121–26 of his book Benefit of the Doubt is one of the best I’ve read. Under the heading “Betrothed to the Beloved,” he explicates the meaning of the new covenant in terms of marriage, using ample scripture references from both Testaments. To illuminate the analogy, he describes in detail ancient Jewish marriage practices, comparing the church’s two main sacraments to two such customs: baptism as our betrothal ceremony, and communion as our betrothal feast.

Engagement was taken much more seriously in ancient Israelite culture than it is today in the West, where it is easily gotten into and out of. Boyd writes that in ancient Jewish marriages a couple was legally married for a year or two before they had a wedding and became fully married, at which point they consummated their marriage through sexual intercourse. The liminal space between the initial ceremony to declare the engagement and the definitive marriage ceremony, with the most magnificent feast to follow, was known as the betrothal period. This is the period the church is in now: we know our beloved, but not fully; we anticipate our life together, but this, here, is not quite it.

As did those Israelite fiancés, Jesus has gone away to prepare a home for us (John 14:1–3), and in the meantime he has left us with a betrothal gift, a promissory pledge that he will return: his Holy Spirit. As we wait to consummate our marriage with him—to enter into that “one flesh” relationship—we are to be readying ourselves to be a wife worthy of him.   Continue reading

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God in the Modern Wing: Matthew Milliner on Chagall, Magritte, and Dalí

Theologian and art collector G. Walter Hansen has organized a four-part series of lectures this month titled “God in the Modern Wing.” Taking place each Sunday at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and free to the public, it aims to explore the spiritual significance of the modern and contemporary art one can encounter at the famous Art Institute of Chicago.

The November 8 lecture—which I highly commend to you—was given by Matthew Milliner, assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College. In it he covers Marc Chagall (one of my favorite artists, and apparently the pope’s as well!), Renée Magritte, and Salvador Dalí.

Here is an outline of the talk.

4:21: Introduction

13:00: Marc Chagall: influence of Russian icons; twentieth-century religious persecution and Christ as the supreme Jewish martyr; the fiddler on the roof; commentary on The Praying Jew | Dedicated to Christ | White Crucifixion | The Crucified | Descent from the Cross | Resistance, Resurrection, Liberation

31:17: Renée Magritte: from trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) to trompe l’esprit (trick of the spirit); selfie culture; Constantine V and Theodore the Studite on iconoclasm; the hopeful Magritte; commentary on The Lovers II | On the Threshold of Liberty | The Human Condition | The Treachy of Images | The Freedom of Worship | The Tune and Also the Words | The Maimed | The Fair Captive | Favorable Omens

41:28: Salvador Dalí: from atheist to mystic; the Nicene Creed using Dalí images; the hypercube as a symbol of the Incarnation; commentary on Venus de Milo with Drawers and Visions of Eternity (in conversation with his Divine Comedy series) | Invention of the Monsters | Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man | Temptation of Saint Anthony | Christ of St. John of the Cross

49:08: David Adjaye’s Sea of Galilee

51:21: Q&A

Milliner makes a lot of great connections in his talk, but most revelatory to me was his use of Magritte’s Treachery of Images as a response to the iconoclastic controversies that have beset the history of the church (see 37:34). He takes up the famous painting of the pipe that bears the inscription “This is not a pipe” to teach Christians how to look at paintings of Jesus.   Continue reading

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Important announcement

After much consideration I have decided to discontinue The Jesus Question and to launch in its place a new blog dedicated to theology and the arts. Thus, I will be phasing out this website over the next two months (I’ll be here at least through Christmastide, so don’t leave me yet!), after which point I will be replacing it with ArtandTheology.org. I will explain my decision for this in a final post.

All the content on this site will still be available to you, though at some point down the road I may stop renewing the domain, which means it would revert back to thejesusquestion.wordpress.com.

I want to thank all of you who have journeyed with me this far, and I hope you will enjoy equally as much—if not more—my new baby. Until that go-live date I will remain committed to developing thoughtful content for The Jesus Question, even as I also plan out posts for the new blog.

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Seven Contemporary Christian Artists

Artists who are Christian need not confine themselves to depictions of biblical characters and narrative, but because that is where my particular interests lie as an art viewer and blogger, that is what I am most on the lookout for: artists (whether Christian or not) with large bodies of work directly inspired by the Bible. As I discover such artists from the present era, I add their name to the Artists tab at the top of this website. I plan on one day reaching out to all of them—or their estates, if deceased—as I seek to create an online biblical art gallery.

Lately I’ve been announcing these additions through The Jesus Question’s Facebook page, but seeing as perhaps not all of you are Facebook users, and also as I’ve recently run across A LOT of great artists, I thought I’d signal you here to the seven names I added today.

Françoise Bissara-Fréreau

François Bissara-Fréreau works primarily in sculpture but also in painting and stained glass. She has carried out many church commissions. You can see her in her Paris studio here:

And being interviewed on KTOTV (Catholic television in France) here:

Unfortunately I can’t understand a word in either of these videos, because I do not speak French! I’m also not sure how to translate the title of the work below (“Legend of the Way”?), but it looks to me like a Resurrection image, with the figure’s strong, wide stance, and his grave clothes unraveling.

Resurrection sculpture

François Bissara-Fréreau, La légende du chemin. Bronze, 170 cm tall.

Sister Marie Boniface

Born Maria Elisabeth Stolberg, Sister Marie Boniface was a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Bathilde, a Catholic congregation of women headquartered in Vanves, France. Although Sister Marie was a white Austrian, she chose to depict Jesus and his disciples as black. She passed away in 2012.

Boniface, Marie_Washing of the Disciples' Feet

Painting by Sr. Marie Boniface. © Bénédictines de Vanves

Peter Koenig

As a painter, Peter Koenig seeks to translate gospel stories into modernized settings—much in the vein of James B. Janknegt and Dinah Roe Kendall. In that respect his Good Shepherd Resurrection is a bit of an anomaly, but it does give you a sense of his unique re-visioning of biblical material.   Continue reading

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Hehu Karaiti: Jesus Christ of the Māori

Last week we looked at the subject of the Madonna and Child translated into a Māori idiom. Today we’ll look at artistic depictions of Jesus as a full-grown adult Māori.

Head of Christ

Māori Jesus by Sofia Minson—a New Zealand painter of Māori, Swedish, English, and Irish descent—depicts Jesus with a full-face moko (tattoo) and a pōhoi (ear and neck ornament) made from the skin of the native but now extinct huia bird.

Maori Jesus

Sofia Minson (New Zealand, 1984–), Māori Jesus, 2014. Acrylic and flashe paint on loose canvas, 148 x 97 cm.

In Māori culture, tattooing is a way to loudly declare who you are. This aspect underlies tattooing in most cultures, but whereas tattoos are many times chosen in the West simply for the attractiveness of their design or to promote some kind of vague philosophical ideal (like “Peace,” or “Love,” or “Be yourself”), in Māori culture the moko—traditionally—communicates specific information about the wearer’s lineage, tribe, occupation, rank, and exploits. Every moko is unique to the individual and tells about his or her life and history.

According to an enlightening Q&A on www.media.newzealand.com, “A moko on the face is the ultimate statement of one’s identity as a Māori,” as the head is believed to be the most sacred part of the body. To wear the moko on the face is a bold move that bespeaks your pride of self and heritage, because think about it: wherever you go, your face is the one part of your body that is likely to always be on view.

I’m not sure how to read the moko on Jesus’s face—that is, I don’t speak the language of Māori tattoo. But I can imagine it contains much of the genealogical information recorded in Matthew 1, telling how Jesus descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through the royal line of David, and how he was born of the Virgin Mary. It likely proclaims his role as messiah, his relationship to the other two persons of the Trinity, his preaching prowess, and some of the miracles he performed. (Whether there is a Māori design vocabulary to articulate such things, I don’t know!)   Continue reading

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Māori depictions of the Madonna and Child

The Madonna and Child—Virgin Mary holding her infant son, Jesus—is a subject as old as the second-century Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. The Byzantine Church, for whom this subject held central importance, developed a standardized iconography for it, and it rose to popularity in the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the cult of the Virgin took root there.

Wherever Christianity travels and is received, the host culture tends to adapt the church’s iconography to its own context. The Māori—the indigenous people of New Zealand—are no exception.

Wood carvings by indigenous artists

Unfortunately, missionaries didn’t always approve of indigenous visual expressions of the gospel. Such was the case with two nineteenth-century Madonna and Child figurines, carved by new Māori converts to the faith and presented to, but rejected by, the local parish priests for chapel use.

The earlier of these two tekoteko (carved figures) was made around 1845, seven years after the first Roman Catholic mission was established in New Zealand. The artist has indicated Mary’s spiritual status by giving her a full-face moko (tattoo)—a distinction typically reserved for men. This likens her to an ariki tapairu, the firstborn female in a Māori family of rank, who was invested with sacred attributes and given the respect due to a princess or queen.

As is traditional in Māori carving, the eyes are made of pāua (abalone) shell.

Maori Madonna and Child

Pataromu Tamatea (disputed), Madonna and Child, ca. 1845. Auckland Museum, New Zealand. For a close-up, see Flickr user Nick Thompson’s photo.

Maori Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child, ca. 1890. Te Papa museum, Wellington, New Zealand.

The other tekoteko was carved around 1890. It too shows Mary with a full-face moko, but unlike its predecessor, the bodies of the figures are smooth, and they stand on a grotesque head with a protruding tongue.

Because such objects were unfamiliar to the European settlers, they tended to denigrate them as primitive and idolatrous. Out of concern for how the pakeha (non-Māori) in the parish would react to the Christianized tekoteko, the priests reluctantly declined the gifts. [1]

However, both tekoteko have ended up in New Zealand museums for a wider audience to enjoy, and the 1845 one was even featured prominently in the ceremony to welcome Pope John Paul II to the country in 1986.   Continue reading

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