Harold Stevenson or The Prominent Artist I Knew

Last night I was reading an e-mail from a friend in Norman, Oklahoma and it mentioned friends of hers who had died this year.  I had missed in the news in October that Harold Stevenson had died.

Harold was a prominent artist who never quite reached the fame and popularity of his contemporaries.  You can read an excellent obituary here that gives you some of his history, which includes working with Andy Warhol and having one of his paintings exhibited on the Eiffel Tower (it was taken down when it caused a giant traffic jam).

The New Adam

Harold's masterpiece was The New Adam, the most monumental male nude ever painted by an American artists (the actor Sal Mineo was the model).  The paintings is forty feet long and was intended to be displayed wrapped around three walls of a gallery.  It was to appear in a show at the Guggenheim in 1962, a show that made names such as Robert Rauschenberg famous, but the painting was rejected at the last minute.  The Guggenheim finally purchased the work in the early Aughts, though it hasn't been on display in a while.  In 2005 a detail from the painting was selected for the cover of the book Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art.  I reviewed that book here.

So, how did I know this prominent gay painter?

He was from Idabel, Oklahoma, a small town in the pine woods of southeastern Oklahoma where he returned in his final years and he was friends with people I knew in Oklahoma City.  It was my privilege to hang out with Harold on a few occasions.  A few times he attended the church I pastored in Oklahoma City, including once being there for the annual pet blessing.  He gave me a signed print.

Harold was a delightful person, funny and smart, and full of great stories of some of the most significant characters in twentieth century American cultural life.

Harold's other masterwork is less well known, though it has been exhibited in Paris.  This work is entitled The Great Society, and now belongs to the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus, though it is also currently in storage.

The Great Society

The Great Society is 100 larger than life size portraits of the citizens of Idabel, Oklahoma painted by Harold in 1966.  In 2006 the paintings were exhibited in Norman, Oklahoma and I reviewed the opening for Hard News Online (which no longer exists, though you can read the opening paragraphs of the review here).  That night Michael and I were fortunate to be part of a small group that went to dinner with Harold after the premiere, where we peppered him with questions.  That night, in answer to one of my questions about the paintings, Harold responded, "You must understand, Reverend Doctor, that each one was spontaneous; after the session, I never touched them again."

I hadn't seen or talked with Harold for some time, one of the losses of moving to Nebraska, but I was sad last night to learn of his death in October.  He was a fascinating figure--this great erotic gay artist from rural Oklahoma who returned there and in one of his greatest works elevated its ordinary citizens into the world of fine art.  

A Stranger's Mirror

A Stranger's Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014A Stranger's Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two things stand out about this poetry collection. First is the way that she works within a wide variety of traditional forms--sonnet crown, ghazal, glose, pantoum, etc.--yet does not write stuffy poetry. I'm rarely drawn to poetry this structured, yet hers has a vitality.

Second is the international flavor of her work. She is an American Jewish lesbian living in France who has studied Arabic language and literature. The new poems that begin this collection are written in response to recent upheavals, including the Syrian Civil War.

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The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book two lacks the punch of book one, in my opinion. But I'm still engrossed in this story.

Book one ends with an horrific revelation that plays out in the first chapters of book two. But eventually the story reaches a point where it drags on, and I was growing tired of the characters and the plot. I think it could have moved more quickly in places. But the final third does move briskly and sets up some intriguing possibilities for where the story goes next.

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LeviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first two parts, wherein the essence of the political argument is made, were entertaining enough. Interesting to read for better historical perspective. Interesting to read to see the flaws in the argument--such as the false dichotomy between an all-powerful sovereign or a state of civil war and his oversimplified and incorrect understanding of human psychology and evolutionary development.

Parts three and four are a chore, even if you skim through them. I didn't expect the lengthy theological arguments. At points the issues are relevant to the political issues confronting him--he is writing after a religiously-motivated civil war--but often there are vast numbers of pages on various doctrinal issues that seem unrelated to the main thrust of the book (and also wrong with the hindsight of the history of theology and biblical interpretation).

But worthy to read these historical text if nothing else to help remove the blinders that keep us trapped into our current moment, thinking we live at this exceptional time and that our troubles are so, so bad.

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Brilliant interview with Arundhati Roy

The Boston Review has published a brilliant interview with author Arundhati Roy discussing her books, her politics, and the state of the world.  I encourage you to read it.  An excerpt:

While it is easy to take lofty moral positions, in truth, there is nothing simple about this problem. Because it is not a problem. It is a symptom of a great churning and a deep malaise. The assertion of ethnicity, race, caste, nationalism, sub-nationalism, patriarchy, and all kinds of identity, by exploiters as well as the exploited, has a lot—but of course not everything—to do with laying collective claim to resources (water, land, jobs, money) that are fast disappearing. There is nothing new here, except the scale at which its happening, the formations that keep changing, and the widening gap between what is said and what is meant. Few countries in the world stand to lose more from this way of thinking than India—a nation of minorities. The fires, once they start, could burn for a thousand years. If we go down this warren and choose to stay there, if we allow our imaginations to be trapped within this matrix, and come to believe there is no other way of seeing things, if we lose sight of the sky and the bigger picture, then we are bound to find ourselves in conflicts that spiral and spread and multiply and could very easily turn apocalyptic.

Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents (Earthseed, #2)Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first Earthseed novel, Parable of the Sower, was one of the best books I read last year (and there were a handful I rated highly). So, I was excited to read the second novel.

And, wow, is it powerful too. What's most surprising about both of these novels is how relevant they are to our contemporary context--in this one the evil candidate for president runs on a slogan of Make America Great Again (Butler published this book in 1997).

I rated this one lower for two reasons. I thought some elements of the plot were less coherent than the first novel--there are more loose ends and things that raise questions that pull you outside of the suspension of disbelief.

And second, it wrapped up too quickly. It felt like there needed to be a third novel that achieved what she accomplished in the final chapter.

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87 Books in 2018

For the second year in a row, I set a new record, reading 87 books in 2018.  I finished the last one at 10:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve.

According to my tally, they breakdown as follows:

  • 31 works of fiction
  • 7 works of philosophy
  • 9 works of theology
  • 8 books of Biblical scholarship
  • 8 books of history or current events
  • 6 memoirs or travel books
  • 3 books of poetry
  • 2 general religion books
  • 2 books about music
  • and 11 children's books
  • 43 by women--a percentage record
  • 22 by people of color
  • 14 by women of color
  • 13 in translation (fewer than 2017 when reading world lit was my major project)
  • 5 by queer authors

Songs of Love

Songs of Love

Philippians 1:3-11

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

2 December 2018



            As a nice transition from one holiday season to the next, our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi begins with thanksgiving.  As teacher and preacher Fred Craddock points out, “To begin with a word of thanksgiving was not unusual for any correspondent of that day, but for Paul it was theologically central and essential.”

            So hear now the word of the Lord from this ancient letter:


Philippians 1:3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.


It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.


And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.


For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.


The day of Christ is coming, Paul declares.  Time to prepare.

I imagine that many of you are caught up in the midst of your preparations for the coming of Christmas.  Today I’m here to remind you not to forget one vital aspect of that preparation—to let your love overflow.

Because the Christian story is fundamentally a love story.

The theologian James McClendon tells the story this way:


God who is the very Ground of Adventure, the Weaver of society’s Web, the Holy Source of nature in its concreteness—the one and only God, who, when time began, began to be God for a world that in its orderly constitution finally came by his will and choice to include also—ourselves. 


We human beings, having our natural frame and basis, with our own penchant for community, and our own hankerings after adventure, found ourselves, before long, in trouble.  Our very adventurousness led us astray . . . .


In [God’s] loving concern, God set among us, by every means infinite wisdom could propose, the foundations of a new human society; in his patience he sent messengers to recall the people of his Way to their way; in the first bright glimmers of opportunity he sent—himself, incognito, without splendor and fanfare, the Maker amid the things made, the fundamental Web as if a single fiber, the Ground of Adventure risking everything in this adventure.


[God’s] purpose—sheer love; [God’s] means—pure faith; [God’s] promise—unquenchable hope.  In that love he lived a life of love; by that faith he died a faithful death; from that death he rose to fructify hope for the people of his Way, newly gathered, newly equipped.  The rest of the story is still [God’s]—yet it can be ours, yours.



And how did the God of love come among us?  Incognito in that little peasant baby whose birth we await a few weeks from now.  The familiarity of this story often masks precisely how strange it is.

Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo reminds us by telling the story this way:


Behold the unalterable power of Love’s being: now a single-celled zygote . . . now a free-floating blastocyst . . . now an embryo, fully implanted in the thick and marshy, nutrient-rich endometrial lining of a young peasant woman in ancient Palestine.  The fused cells of Love-incarnate “push long, amoeba-like fingers deep into the uterine lining while secreting digestive enzymes that facilitate its burial.  In response, the tips of the spiral arteries break open and spurt like geysers.  Thus, life begins in a pool of blood.”  The incarnate life of divine love begins in a pool of blood—life-giving blood that nourishes the progression of Mary’s pregnancy through neurogenesis, musculoskeletal somitogenesis, organogenesis, replete with “cellular migrations worthy of Odysseus.”  The bloodiness of this second Genesis makes the life of Mary’s child possible—a recreation not from nothing, but from everything, from the universal stuff of life. . . .


Love incarnate did not pass into the world through Mary’s womb like a ray of light.  Rather, the hard-as-steel muscles of Mary’s uterus pressed the baby’s head down on her cervix until it slowly, painfully dilated and effaced and made way for the child to gradually inch his way through the birth canal with each grueling push, his bruised and misshapen head finally emerging through the stretching, tearing perineum into the hands of Mary’s birthing attendant. 


            Elizabeth Gandolfo asks, “How can it be that the invulnerable can at once become vulnerable, that the vulnerable can bear the image of invulnerability?”

            And her narration of this love story reminds us that we all made the same adventurous journeys through our mother’s wombs.  We all were overwhelming invulnerable and only survived and thrived because someone else risked themselves to love us.

            Do each of us, then, incarnate in some way the invulnerable love of God in our very vulnerability?


            “There is a special moral intensity to the love between parents and children,” writes philosopher Allison Gopnik.  She continues, “Just deciding to care for this one particular special, individual child automatically makes that child the focus of our deepest moral concern.  Parents routinely sacrifice their sleep, their time, their happiness, even their lives for their children.”

            She adds, “The immediate, intimate, loving interactions between babies and adults dissolve the boundaries between the self and others.”  And so she concludes that the origin of our ethical traditions resides here, in the love we have for children.  This is how we learn to be moral beings.

            But it is also how we learn everything.  Gopnik declares, “Because we love babies, they can learn.”  Because we care for them, they have the ability to focus their energies on learning and they learn so quickly because of our care for them.  And the more love they receive, the stronger the attachment and the affection, the greater ability they have to let their imaginations thrive and through this imaginative capacity, they learn to make sense of the world.

            So the greatest human gift you were given was by those adults who loved you and cared for you when you were at your most vulnerable.  That the adult you can dream and imagine and hope and learn and seek the truth and live an ethical life all is because someone overflowed with unconditional love for little baby you.


            Yes, we are each an incarnation of divine love.

            This Advent, let your love overflow.  Make loving one another a vital aspect of your preparation for this season.  And not just a sentimental emotion, but the kind that risks the adventure, that creates new opportunities for life to thrive.

            And in that way we will sing our love songs for the coming of the Day of Christ.

Giving Thanks for God's Blessings

Give Thanks for God’s Blessings

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

18 November 2018


The Apostle Paul is on his way from Greece to Jerusalem to deliver an offering that he has been collecting.  You see, Paul’s preaching to Gentiles was controversial in the early church, so he entered into an agreement with the original disciples and part of that agreement was that the Gentile churches would remember and care for the poor Jewish Christians back in Judea.  Paul then spent a good deal of time fundraising on this latest missionary journey.  More than one of the letters of Paul contained within the New Testament were fundraising letters.

So, Paul’s returning to Jerusalem to deliver the offering and he is bringing a contingent of Gentile Christians with him from Europe.  They are going to stop in Corinth on their way, so Paul is encouraging Corinth to make a good showing of welcoming the delegation and also delivering their offering to him. 

That’s the context then for our scripture lesson today.  Hear now the Word of the Lord.


2 Corinthians 9:6-15


The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly,
and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
Each of you must give as you have made up your mind,
not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance,
so that by always having enough of everything,
you may share abundantly in every good work.
As it is written, “God scatters abroad, God gives to the poor;
God’s righteousness endures forever.”

The One who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity,
which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;
for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints
but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that has been given you.
Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!


For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.


            Let’s begin today with a little stress reduction, okay?  This week is Thanksgiving so it is typical for you to be asked what you are thankful for.  Take a moment to think about that.  What are you thankful for?  Now turn to someone near you and share briefly.


            Good.  According to scientific studies your cortisol levels may have just been reduced by 23%.  Which means you are less stressed than you were a few moments ago.

            The scientific research into gratitude is rather clear at this point.  According to positive psychologist Derrick Carpenter, “The benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly endless. People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they're thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.”

            Gratitude can improve our most intimate relationships, give us more disciplined self-control, increase our mental and physical health, make us more optimistic, and make us happier.  Studies even demonstrate how individuals practicing gratitude improves society, as gratitude is contagious, spreading quickly from one person to other people.  We all appreciate being thanked and in the glow of that appreciation are more likely to thank other people.

            Gratitude also has a cathartic function, helping us to overcome feelings of guilt.  When we let people down, one way to heal the breach is to express gratitude to that person for something they’ve done.  Broken social relationships can be mended, and we can overcome our negative feelings.

            And maybe most exciting is how easy it is to practice gratitude.  Some of the virtues, like courage or humility, might be more difficult for us.  But gratitude is one of the easiest to develop.  Even simple practices like writing thank you notes or keeping a gratitude journal have been shown scientifically to have significant lasting effects upon our attitude and our character.

            According to positive psychology, gratitude is ultimate more than being thankful, “it is more like a deeper appreciation for someone (or something,) which produces longer lasting positivity.”  Our thanksgiving, then, contributes to an overall emotional development within our character.  We become people with a deeper appreciation for the world. 


            St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to be appreciative for the blessings of God that they have received.  And these aren’t simply material blessings.  They should be grateful to God for their spiritual blessings.  They are part of this new movement, slowly changing the world, making it more just and peace and holy. 

            And because of their gratitude, they should respond generously in hopes of passing those blessings along.  Their gifts will increase the blessings, making them more available to more people. 

            Paul’s fundraising appeal is for a vision of the world “so grand it almost takes the breath away” writes Calvin Roetzel.  For Paul imagines a new world with a new humanity, united across the old divisions that once separated people, yet now all working together as sisters and brothers in a common family united in purpose to achieve God’s vision for the world.  And Paul thinks, “Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?  Who wouldn’t want to be an initial investor in the creation of a more just world?” 

            Paul calls this opportunity to donate money “an indescribable gift” for which  we should give thanks to God.  You could update the language.  “This is going to be bigger than if you were an initial investor in Berkshire Hathaway!”

            Only this time instead of a great financial return, you are contributing in the making of better world.


             Guess what?  That’s still the church’s financial appeal.  2,000 years later we are still in the business of making a better world—more just, more equitable, more peaceful, more loving and joyful. 

            So I thank you for your gifts and for your participation in God’s on-going mission and the small part we play in that big picture here at First Central Congregational Church. 

            Happy Thanksgiving.  And “Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!”