Paul Gauguin strove to depict the simple, direct faith of a group of women from Pont-Aven, a rural community in Brittany, France. His style, based on pre-Renaissance sources, is devoid of linear perspective and conventional organization. In the foreground, the Breton women, dressed in their Sunday garb and kneeling in prayer, are envisioning the sermon that they just heard. They transform a common cow into a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God (Gen. 32:22–31). A tree limb placed diagonally across the expressive red background separates the cow from the struggling figures and serves as a visual representation of the river Jabbok. The Pont-Aven women learn from the sermon that the life of faith can be a struggle. Jacob wrestles at Jabbok and gets both a limp and a blessing.
How did Julia Ward Howe’s pro–federal Union and abolitionist-inspired “Battle Hymn of the Republic” become the most recognizable American anthem of the 20th century? Why is it embraced by liberals and conservatives, radicals and businesspeople, whites, blacks and beyond?
Driving in northern Indiana one recent evening, I came to the conclusion that religious broadcasters pretty much own the FM band in this part of the country. One station was playing contemporary Christian music, another gospel music. And three different stations were airing James Dobson’s radio program. Dobson, formerly of Focus on the Family, was touting a new novel he has coauthored, which fictionalizes all the bad things supposedly resulting from a decline in the American birthrate.
No one understood my nightly need to be reassured I’d wake up again the next day. Eyes closed, I saw no sheep but the tufts of pampas grass looming silver like a solitary path. The scroll hung above me, a verse in five and seven, its flowing hand thin and illegible—I still knew it was about our life not lasting very long. How is it that adults were okay with such a prospect? In July, bamboo blades rustled against paper cranes and prayer strips; I wondered how I’d made the cut, when I wasn’t a boy my father wanted, wasn’t a koi princess my mother said would magically turn her tail into a pair of legs. I looked for the fabled rabbits on the moon, a family of them taking turns to pound rice into pearly cakes along their dark, elliptical orbit.
A copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in America, will be auctioned off by Sotheby’s and is expected to bring between $15 and $30 million, making it the most expensive book ever sold. One of two copies owned by Old South Church in Boston, it is one of only 11 remaining copies published. The proceeds will be used to help replenish Old South’s endowment once $7 million of it is used for deferred maintenance. The church historian resigned over the congregation’s decision to sell one of its treasures, but the rest of the congregation overwhelmingly supported the decision (New York Times, November 15).