Breaking News

Peace-building art exhibition seeks to unite East and West

By Episcopal Journal

ankh-with-girlA contemporary art exhibition built on the theme of the ancient Egyptian symbol of the ankh opened in New York on Sept. 21, the United Nations International Day of Peace.

The exhibition, titled “The Key,” showcases the work of 40 Egyptian, Middle-Eastern and Western contemporary artists using a modern 3D fiberglass portrayal of the ankh, the hieroglyph known as the “key of life,” as a means of engendering unity among people of different cultural heritages and faith backgrounds.

“It’s the canvas for a contemporary message of hope for a harmonious, peaceful and tolerant world,” said the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, an Episcopal priest who is founder and president of CARAVAN, an organization that employs the arts as a peacebuilder among the creeds and cultures of East and West. “The Key,” already seen by thousands in Cairo and most recently in London at St. James, Piccadilly, will remain at New York’s historic Riverside Church, a stronghold of peace activism over the decades, until Nov. 6.

Highlights for January

As heavenly bodies converge, many ask: Is the Star of Bethlehem making a comeback?

The painting, “Adoration of the Magi,” by Giotto, in Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy shows the Star of Bethlehem as a comet. Photo/Wikiart.org

By Eric M. Vanden Eykel
On Dec. 21, Jupiter and Saturn crossed paths in the night’s sky and for a brief moment, they appearws to shine together as one body. While planetary conjunctions like this are not everyday events, they also are not particularly rare.

This year’s conjunction is different for at least two reasons. The first is the degree to which the two planets will be aligned. According to experts, they appeared closer during this conjunction than they have in nearly eight centuries and also brighter.

But the second factor, and the one that has thrust this event into the spotlight, is that it occured on the winter solstice, just before the Christmas holiday. The timing has led to a speculation whether this could be the same astronomical event that the Bible reports led the wise men to Joseph, Mary and the newly born Jesus — the Star of Bethlehem.

As a scholar of early Christian literature writing a book on the three wise men, I argue that this planetary conjunction is likely not the fabled Star of Bethlehem. The biblical story of the star is intended to convey theological rather than historical or astronomical truths.

For full story:

Why I still watch ‘Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown’

Merry Christmas Charlie Brown was featured on 2015 US postage stamps

By Pamela A. Lewis
Like many Americans of my generation, I have been a big fan of “Peanuts,” the cartoon created by the late Charles Schulz. As a kid, I impatiently awaited the delivery of the Sunday papers so I could turn immediately to the page where Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and their motley group of friends held court and made me and my parents laugh at their amusing adventures and experiences.

I loved each of the main characters because of the way Schulz designed their physical characteristics: Lucy’s big gaping mouth that either bossed others or was Snoopy’s target for one of his dreaded sloppy wet “kisses”; Charlie Brown with his nearly bald pate and woe-is-me expression; or the rumpled Pig Pen, who was eternally surrounded in a cloud of dust. By some mysterious alchemy, Schulz gave his characters personalities that were at turns irritating and endearing.

I want the whole story:

Why Christmas movies are so appealing this holiday season

 

 

James Stewart and Donna Reed star in the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Photo/RKO Pictures/Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images

By S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate

With the pandemic limiting travel over the holiday season, many Americans will be settling in front of the television to watch their favorite holiday movies, along with their favorite drink — a cup of hot apple cider or a glass of wine — to add some cheer.

Holiday movies have become an essential part of the American winter celebrations and are likely to be more so for those quarantining this year. The entertainment site Vulture reports 82 new holiday movie releases in 2020. But, even before the lockdown, production of annual Christmas movies was reported to be up by at least 20% since 2017 on a single cable network.

Holiday movies are popular not simply because they are “escapes,” as my research on the relation between religion and cinema argues. Rather, these films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it could be.

Christmas movies as reflection

From left, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and Vera-Ellen star in “White Christmas.” Photo/Classic Film/Flickr, CC BY-NC

This is particularly true with Christmas movies.
In his 2016 book “Christmas as Religion,” the religious studies scholar Christopher Deacy states that Christmas movies act as a “barometer of how we might want to live and how we might see and measure ourselves.”

These movies offer a variety of portraits of everyday life while affirming ethical values and social mores along the way.

The 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a fantasy film about a man named George Bailey, who has touched the lives of many, despite all his problems — represents visions of a community in which every citizen is a vital component.

Another movie commonly replayed this time of year is 2005’s “The Family Stone,” which portrays the clashes of a mostly average family but shows viewers that quarrels can be worked through and harmony is possible.

The 2003 British holiday film “Love Actually,” which follows the lives of eight couples in London, brings to viewers the perennial theme of romance and the trials of relationships.

Movie-watching as ritual practice
As holiday movies bring viewers into a fictional world, people are able to work through their own fears and desires about self-worth and relationships. Such movies can provide solace, reaffirmation and sometimes even courage to continue working through difficult situations. The movies offer hope in believing it all might turn out all right in the end.

Dr. Seuss’ character the Grinch is seen in a scene from the 1966 TV movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Photo/MGM Animation/Visual Arts

When people see some part of their own lives unfold on screen, the act of viewing operates in a fashion that’s strikingly similar to how a religious ritual works.

As anthropologist Bobby Alexander explains, rituals are actions that transform people’s everyday lives. Rituals can open up “ordinary life to ultimate reality or some transcendent being or force,” he writes in the collection “Anthropology of Religion.”

For example, for Jews and Christians, ritually observing the Sabbath day by sharing meals with family and not working connects them with the creation of the world. Prayer rituals in the Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions connect those praying with their God, as well as with their fellow believers.

Holiday movies do something similar, except that the “transcendent force” they make viewers feel is not about God or another supreme being. Instead, this force is more secular: It’s the power of family, true love, the meaning of home or the reconciliation of relationships.

Movies create an idealized world
Take the case of the 1942 musical “Holiday Inn.” It was one of the first movies — after the silent era’s various versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — where the plot used Christmas as a backdrop, telling the story of a group of entertainers who have gathered at a country inn.

In reality, it was a deeply secular film about romantic interests, couched in a desire to sing and dance. When it was released, the United States had been fully involved in World War II for a year and national spirits were not high.

The movie hasn’t endured as a classic. However, Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas,” which appeared in it, quickly became etched in the holiday consciousness of many Americans, and a 1954 film called “White Christmas” became better known.

As historian Penne Restad puts it in her 1995 book “Christmas in America,” Crosby’s crooning offers the “quintessential expression” of the holidays, a world which “has no dark side” — one in which “war is forgotten.”

In subsequent Christmas movies, the main plots have not been set in the context of war, yet there is nonetheless often a battle: that of overcoming a materialistic, gift-buying and gift-giving kind of holiday.
Movies like “Jingle all the Way,” “Deck the Halls” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” center on the idea that the true meaning of Christmas is not in rampant consumerism but in goodwill and family love.
Dr. Seuss’ famously grouchy Grinch thinks he can ruin Christmas by taking all the gifts away. But as the people gather together, giftless, they join hands and sing while the narrator tells viewers, “Christmas came anyway.”

‘All’s right with the world’
Though Christmas is a Christian holiday, most holiday films are not religious in the traditional sense. There is hardly ever a mention of Jesus or the biblical setting of his birth.

Peter Billingsley plays Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”Photo/MGM/UA

As media studies scholar John Mundy writes in a 2008 essay “Christmas and the Movies,” “Hollywood movies continue to construct Christmas as an alternative reality.”

These movies create on-screen worlds that kindle positive emotions while offering a few laughs.
“A Christmas Story,” from 1983, waxes nostalgic for childhood holidays when life seemed simpler and the desire for a Red Ryder air rifle was the most important thing in the world. The plot of 2003’s “Elf” centers on the quest to reunite with a lost father.

In the end, as the narrator says late in “A Christmas Story” — after the family has overcome a series of risible mishaps, the presents have been unwrapped and they’ve gathered for Christmas goose — these are times when “all’s right with the world.”

At the end of a troubled 2020, and as so many families are physically isolated from their loved ones, people need to believe in worlds in which all’s right. Holiday movies allow a glimpse of such a place.

S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate is professor of religious studies and cinema and media studies, by special appointment, at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. This article was first published at The Conversation (www.theconversation.com).

Highlights for December

In the year of the pandemic, a printmaker seeks to honor those we have lost

By Jerry Hames
Troubled by thoughts of the increasing pandemic death toll across the nation, the Rev. Mark Harris, a retired Episcopal priest and creative printmaker, struggled with how he could memorialize those who had fallen victim to COVID-19.

“I was trying to work out how to make real the number of those who had died, how to make it something I could handle, make manifest in some sort of art object,” he said.

Unexpectedly, the answer came in a dream. “What came to me was the idea of a book in which each person who had died would be tallied with a mark of some sort, and the whole collection of those marks would be a book of many pages. I decided to have the book represent all the American dead from January to November 1. The book would be completed and added to the remembering on All Saints Day,” he said.

I want the whole story:

Desire for church reform led to Mayflower voyage

Review by Chip Prehn
More recently than I ought to admit, a distinguished schoolmaster taught me the difference between a New England Puritan and a New England Pilgrim. In his 1996 history of Roxbury Latin School, F. Washington Jarvis notes that John Eliot (1604-90), the founder of that oldest and still superlative American school (1645), considered himself a member of the Church of England.

How could this be, since Eliot lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony? The answer is that Eliot and most other members of the Bay Colony were bent on reforming the Anglican Church, refashioning the established church along the lines of what the New Testament persuaded them was correct.

But unlike the Puritans, the Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Plantation 10 years before the Bay Colony, in 1620, were separatists. Separatists were not interested in an established church at all. Whether governed by bishops or presbyters, they rejected establishment altogether in favor of local churches governed by the people. It is of the English progenitors of the Pilgrims that Stephen Tompkins writes in “The Journey to the Mayflower.”

I want the whole story:

Why I still watch ‘Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown’

By Pamela A. Lewis

Pamela Lewis

Like many Americans of my generation, I have been a big fan of “Peanuts,” the cartoon created by the late Charles Schulz. As a kid, I impatiently awaited the delivery of the Sunday papers so I could turn immediately to the page where Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and their motley group of friends held court and made me and my parents laugh at their amusing adventures and experiences.

I loved each of the main characters because of the way Schulz designed their physical characteristics: Lucy’s big gaping mouth that either bossed others or was Snoopy’s target for one of his dreaded sloppy wet “kisses”; Charlie Brown with his nearly bald pate and woe-is-me expression; or the rumpled Pig Pen, who was eternally surrounded in a cloud of dust. By some mysterious alchemy, Schulz gave his characters personalities that were at turns irritating and endearing.

The Peanuts gang also came across as real children; they were kids like me who went to school, struggled at times with their lessons, and were mystified by the grownups who raised and taught them. They played games (which Charlie Brown never succeeded in winning), teased one another, and developed crushes (see Lucy and Schroeder).

The Peanuts kids also celebrated our culture’s popular holidays, and in 1965, Charlie Brown and his pals moved from the funny papers to the big time: Television. First, there was the Halloween special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, where actors gave the gang their unique and now recognizable voices. But Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown would be different, playing to a wider audience and handling a more significant story.

“Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer,” the kids sing in the film’s introduction as they glide in a serpentine, Snap the Whip line across a frozen pond (with Snoopy bringing up the rear). I join my voice to theirs, reveling in every note of composer Vince Guaraldi’s immortal score. I never tire of the uncomplicated melody, which evokes joy, hope and innocence.


Charlie Brown frets to his pal Linus about not knowing what Christmas “is all about.” The commercialization of the season, heavy with bling and glitz, leaves him feeling confused and kind of empty. Even Charlie’s dog Snoopy has his canine pad rigged out with colorful and flashing lights. But for Charlie Brown, something is wrong with this picture. Something is missing. Yes, Charlie, I understand.

Charlie later gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea to solve his problem: put on an old-fashioned Christmas pageant, complete with the Three Wise Men and bleating sheep. “No, no, no!” objects know-it-all Lucy. It’s got to have “Santa Claus, deck them halls, Ho-ho-ho, and pretty girls,” she explains while batting her eyes at her love interest, Schroeder, whose task is to provide the pageant’s music.

Despite his best efforts to organize the pageant, it doesn’t come together. No one cooperates, least of all Snoopy, who prefers dancing atop Schroeder’s piano rather than listening to his master’s instructions.

Charlie and Linus’ trip to the local Christmas tree market to buy one for the pageant doesn’t help matters, either. Shiny and glammed-up trees are everywhere, but there is nothing real or meaningful, except for a bedraggled little specimen whose needles have all but fallen off.

Taking pity on it, Charlie buys and presents it to his “friends,” who laugh it — and him — to scorn. When he places an ornament on one fragile branch, the tree bends deeply, nearly breaking under the bauble’s weight. “Ugh, I’ve killed it,” laments Charlie, believing again that he can’t do anything right, not even choose a good Christmas tree.

“I can tell you what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” says Linus very calmly, as they stand in the school auditorium where the pageant will take place. One spotlight sheds a beam on Linus (now without his trusty security blanket) as he takes to the empty stage. He recites the ancient verses from the Gospel of Luke (2:1-14): “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger …” Finally, Charlie Brown understands.

The pathetic little tree that looked as if it wouldn’t amount to much, then receives a loving and twinkling makeover from the kids, who present it to Charlie Brown. “It isn’t such a bad little tree; it just needed a little love,” says Linus wisely.

While “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” is essentially an animated cartoon, whose characters look funny, and behave broadly, and there are silly noises and pratfalls, Linus’ recitation of Saint Luke’s verses is its solemn core. For a few moments, the story’s busyness is suspended to make room for a larger and more eternal story.

Charles Schulz’s brilliance lies in having none other than Linus, often presented and judged (especially by his sister Lucy) as too babyish and meek to be taken seriously, to declaim the biblical narrative about another and very special child’s birth.

Like the puny tree, which the other kids ridiculed and rejected, Linus emerges from his customary lesser status to be the one who knows the truth about Christmas. He “tells” that truth by reciting the Nativity story. Sometimes it takes a child — a blanket-toting, thumb-sucking Linus sort of child — to remind the Charlie Browns in the world what life, love, and other important things are all about.

This is why I added “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” to my DVD collection, and why watching this animated classic every year over these many decades is one of my cherished Christmas traditions.

Merry Christmas.

Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. This article was first published in the Episcopal New Yorker.

 

Highlights for November

Renewing our citizenship, faithfully

By Kate Beeby
Exhausted by our political circumstance? Terrified as our brokenness, selfishness and crass disregard crushes the cornerstone of our democracy into unstable footing? Maybe we need to get away. Perhaps Canada — though it’s not clear that our friendly neighbors to north will have us.
Perhaps times like this call for another kind of journey. I’ve read that the act of pilgrimage is a prayer — costly, time-consuming, arduous — a purposeful and sacred expedition. The bishop of the Diocese of Texas, C. Andrew Doyle, expresses his autobiography in a scant, yet compelling, six words: “Met Jesus on pilgrimage, still walking.”
In his most recent book, “Citizen, Faithful Discipleship in a New World,” he invites us on another trek in this critical election year.

I want the whole story:

Finding joy in 2020? It’s not such an absurd idea, really

Angela Gorrell

By Angela Gorrell
The year 2020 hasn’t been one to remember — in fact, for a lot of people it has been an outright nightmare. The pandemic, along with political turmoil and social unrest, has brought anxiety, heartbreak, righteous anger and discord to many.
Amid such suffering, people need some joy.
As a scholar who has investigated the role of joy in day-to-day life, I believe that joy is an incredibly powerful companion during suffering.

For complete story:

Modern-day ‘Old Master’: Painter depicts African-Americans as Bible characters

Called, 2019, Oil on canvas. Photos/Courtesy of Tyler Ballon

By Pamela A. Lewis

The term “Old Master” painters always brings the well-known heavy hitters to mind: Rembrandt, Giotto, da Vinci, Dürer, and Mantegna, who are on the long list of European men (and a few women) who, between the 13th and 19th centuries, produced some of the greatest paintings in Western art.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “Old Master” was “a pre-eminent artist of the period before the modern; especially a pre-eminent western European painter of the 13th to 18th centuries.”

At first glance, contemporary artist Tyler Ballon may not remind anyone of the traditional image of an “Old Master.” On the day of his Zoom interview with Episcopal Journal, he was clad in a T-shirt bearing the words “God vs. my enemies,” and jeans.

Tyler Ballon is seen in his studio.

From his canvas-packed studio at the Mana Contemporary Center in Jersey City, N.J., the 24-year-old African-American figurative artist turns out large-scale paintings like those that Renaissance and Baroque-era European artists typically produced.

However, the common themes of old master paintings have also strongly inspired Ballon, a Jersey City native and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He traces to early childhood his first encounters with these works’ depictions of mythological heroes, and, more specifically, biblical characters and saints. Over the last several years, Ballon has used old master techniques from celebrated works to draw attention to the challenges facing Black Americans.

Ballon grew up in a “challenging environment,” where many of his peers were incarcerated, struggled to support families, or died violently. But he credits his parents (who are both pastors in the Pentecostal church) and his love of art for setting him on a different path.

“Art saved me,” Ballon asserted. At first it was merely a hobby that competed with his other love, boxing. But his now-deceased grandmother, upon seeing a drawing he did of her, encouraged him to “keep it up,” because it would bring him and the family success.

In 2013 and 2014, he received the Young Arts awards (presented by the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami), and since 2014, his work has been included in several group exhibitions in this country and in Sweden.

During his years attending a Roman Catholic grammar school and church, Ballon was exposed to and fell in love with traditional iconography that tells the Bible’s dramatic stories

in stained glass and sculpture. As a high school student, he studied the works of Michelangelo and other great painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

“I was always very observant, and I noticed and was impressed by their technical skill, use of color, and profound knowledge of the human anatomy, as well as their ability to turn the Scriptures so powerfully into ‘real life’ onto the canvas,” Ballon said.

However, his deep affection and respect for the work of the Old Masters gradually came into conflict with his growing and discomfiting awareness of their Eurocentrism.

“I felt a separation from the art because all of the figures were White people. I loved the work, but none looked like me. It left me feeling excluded from the conversation,” he said.

Representations of what is now often termed the “Black body” in European art have been scant and largely peripheral. Black figures, frequently unidentified, were relegated to the margins, in the background of paintings, or portrayed in servile roles.

One exception is Balthazar, recounted in legend as one of the three magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child. As Ballon explained, “We live in direct relationship to our heroes. If our heroes are in the Bible and yet don’t resemble us in images, we can’t see ourselves as trying to be like them or trying to do what they’ve done.”

Ballon has filled this pictorial vacuum. Using the tools of the old masters — grand canvases and oil paint, and fluently speaking their iconographic language —Ballon has moved Black bodies from the shadowy margins of the canvas to the forefront, portraying (and also honoring) them as biblical characters.

His paintings document the struggle and pain still embedded in the contemporary Black experience, while interpreting these circumstances within the Christian narratives of faith and redemption.

Deposition, 2018

Ballon’s meticulously detailed paintings often evoke the work of American illustrator Norman Rockwell, as well as that of Kehinde Wiley, the African-American artist whose paintings also reference European masterpieces, and whose portrait of former President Barack Obama drew accolades. Ballon is not bothered by the comparison to Wiley, whom he met when he was 18 years old and whom he idolizes for the older artist’s technique and his broad knowledge of art history.

While Ballon draws inspiration from a variety of old master painters, the use of color and light, strong composition, and powerful storytelling seen in works by the renowned Roman Renaissance and Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610), are reflected most prominently in his work.

Ballon brings these elements together to emphasize the pathos and theatricality of The Deposition (2018), one of his most pointedly Caravaggio-inspired works. Here, the mourners, one of whom locks his eyes with ours, are captured in the same fan-shaped arrangement as those in the Italian master’s 1603 The Entombment.

In Ballon’s hands, they have become residents of an African-American neighborhood lamenting over the murdered body of a loved one. As a kind of homage to Caravaggio, who often included himself in his paintings, Ballon has cast himself as the corpse in this work.

With an economy of gesture and expression the artist gives his attention to hands in Called (2019), where another young man (again, the artist), wearing a baseball cap, sits on a damaged set of steps.

Take Up Your Cross, 2020

He is interrupted from counting the money he holds in each hand by a white jacketed but faceless figure who holds a Bible in his right hand while pointing to the young man with his left. Looking up, the young man points to himself, as if to ask, “Who, me?” Inspired by Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), the work represents subtly yet powerfully the decisive moment when the soul is summoned.

Take Up Your Cross (2020) offers an ambiguous portrayal of its subject. Drenched in dramatic, Caravaggesque light, he looks penetratingly at the viewer, appearing to be just another elementary school kid clutching an unusual object he has found. But in truth, he is the young Jesus embracing the instrument of his death.

Mary in Prayer (2018), based this time on Francisco de Zurbáran’s The Young Virgin (1632-33), is a nearly full-length figure work and one of Ballon’s most explicitly devotional images. The open book (suggesting the Scriptures) on Mary’s lap and her hands positioned to receive the Holy Spirit place her solidly in Western iconography, yet Ballon uses her to address current conversations about whose body can embody holiness.

Mary in Prayer, 2017

Although not a member of a faith community, like the message on his T-shirt, Ballon is forthright about his beliefs and self-identifies as a devout Christian who dedicates all of his work to God’s glory.

“God is the source of my gifts and my greatest agent, who brings opportunities to me,” he said. He feels closest to the Old Testament’s Joseph, on whom God bestowed the gift to interpret dreams, whereas Ballon feels that he has received the gift to interpret the Scriptures through his paintings. His goal is to become one of the greatest figurative painters in the art world, and to be a mentor to other young artists. But, again, he said he leaves that in God’s hands.

Ballon is part of a small but growing group of artists who have returned to representing the human form. His models are friends, family, and members of his immediate community, and in his view, the figure expresses most effectively all that can be expressed in life. As was true for these painters from Europe’s past, composition, vivid color, light and gesture are his currency.

Whereas some may accuse the artist of a lack of originality, his references to and evocations of their works are in keeping with past practices of artists borrowing from one another’s masterpieces. After all, imitation is the highest form of praise.

But more importantly, Ballon is contributing meaningfully to the growing interest in and discussions about the lives of African-Americans and other people of color by bringing together their underrepresented bodies and a European art form to tell the Bible’s compelling stories. His work unapologetically affirms that these bodies can portray sacred characters, be the bearers of eternal truths, and can reflect the imago Dei.

Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue in New York.