08 June 2011

Ekphrasis report #8

Although my workshop/critique group "Ekphrasis: Fellowship of Christians in the Arts" has been meeting monthly all year long, I have not made the time to write up reports of the meetings. First of all, I've had more than I can do keeping up with the interview series, my writing for Curator, my teaching, and the million other wonderful projects that keep a semi-freelancer busy; secondly, summaries of workshops are probably pretty boring to read. However, Ekphrasis meetings have been and are going to be quite different this summer. We're dedicating each session to one person's large-scale work. The upcoming meeting is advertised here; please come if you are in the area! What follows is a report of our most recent meeting. Enjoy!

On Tuesday, May 31, from 3-6pm, members of Ekphrasis and the general public gathered for a reading of “The Jesus Story” by Elizabeth S. This was a collection of oral meditations on the excellencies of Jesus. Each section, or meditation, began with “Once upon a time, there was a man named Jesus, and He was beautiful.” It then proceeded to mention an attribute of Christ’s, and then riff off of that attribute to show His beauties of character and action. Some of the attributes were typical: nearness, righteousness, servanthood, love, and peace. There were also roles, such as husband and brother. And there were sections whose themes were surprising: ugliness, danger, and shame, for instance. In each section, Elizabeth strove to offer images that were fresh, original, and memorable, sometimes delivering an unexpected twist on the nature or expression of an attribute.

During the reading (for the first 8 sections, until our technology failed), we also recorded each section onto audio CD. Indeed, this piece originated as a kind of bedtime-story meditation, designed more for listening than for reading.

As Elizabeth and I talked about genre (“What do we call this piece?”) and as her father spoke about the similarity of this work to some of Jonathan Edwards’s meditations on the nature and work of Christ, I thought of something remarkable. We had been wondering whether Elizabeth had inadvertently invented a new genre with this work. Well, in a way. But I think she’s actually revived a very ancient and long-neglected genre: the Medieval mystical meditation. Her work seemed to have distant echoes of the writings of Julian of Norwich, or others of her ilk, who spent years and years, pages and pages, just meditating on the excellencies of Christ. Their work often sounds strange and uncomfortable to our 21st-century, post-Enlightenment ears. The ecstasy of these saints is often expressed in semi-sexual language, or with a vivid earthiness and sense of embodiment outside our comfort zone. Elizabeth’s work did a little of this, forcing us to ponder how Jesus’ body looked on the cross, what love of Him really entails, and how sacrifice might operate on a daily basis.

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