The other night we threw a bit of a party at McNally Robinson Booksellers (and to see a series of photographs from the event, just click here) in celebration of the official release of Beautiful Mercy | A Book of Hours. With readings by Catherine Pate and Brett Schmall, music by Steve Bell, Mike Koop, Jaylene Johnson and Gord Johnson, and brief reflections from Jamie Howison and from the book’s senior editor Bramwell Ryan, the standing room crowd in the McNally’s Prairie Ink restaurant was offered a great sampling of what all went in to making this book and CD project work. What follows here is Jamie’s reflection on the making of art.
or tens of thousands of years, humans have used art to try to make sense of the world in which we live. Over centuries and millennia, stories have been told, songs sung, dances created, images painted and carved and sculpted. And we are a part of that.
The community that tonight launches the project called Beautiful Mercy | A Book of Hours stands in a biblical tradition that tells stories, some of which are almost 4000 years old. We read and we sing psalms and the poetic songs of prophets like Isaiah, that take us back hundreds and hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. We shape our imaginations through the four gospels, each of which is an artfully presented story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who himself told those artful stories called parables.
And we stand in a tradition that has raised up generation after generation of writers and visual artists and musicians and architects and poets who have sought – through their various offerings – to say something true about the world in which we live; who we are, and whose we are.
The novelist Reynolds Price observes that, “a few of those servants (of Jesus) have given to Western civilization its central masterpieces of literature, painting, sculpture, music and architecture. Remove Christian art from postclassical Western art and very little, prior to the 1880’s, survives.” (A Serious Way of Wondering, p. 118)
But after 1880, though the 20th century? That’s a much more complex question than I can begin to address tonight, though it is fair to say that as art migrated to galleries and music to concert halls – and as architects were commissioned to design great edifices to say something not about the holy, but rather as monuments to finance and commerce – the Christian church largely forgot its connection to the arts. Not entirely, of course; there are notable and remarkable exceptions to that generalization. But how often do we now hear of a church commissioning a piece of art or music? How often do we raise up and celebrate the work of a poet or a playwright or a sculptor, as being essential to our common life?
Which is where Beautiful Mercy comes in. It has been created locally, generated from within a community, and has welcomed specialist and non-specialist alike – the professional as well as the one who does it solely for the love of it – to offer their work to the Glory of God and for the delight and nourishment and maybe even consternation of any who happen upon it and begin to page through.
“Can art be as basic a service as a cup of cold water?” asks Calvin Seerveld in his book Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves. “Definitely, yes! Because depending on your condition, it may not be water that you need: you may need a hernia operation or financial assistance – or you may need the help of an artist.” (p. 19)