What art can teach us about theology and faith formation

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Every year, I take my daughter to ArtPrize—one of the world’s largest art competitions, right in our backyard—hoping she’ll have a different experience with art than than the one I had as a child.

Growing up, art was something I chose to endure rather than appreciate. I viewed trips to the art museum as almost a form of punishment. ArtPrize takes art out of the museum (well, mostly—our favorite piece this year happens to be in the Grand Rapids Art Museum), and in doing so, it’s helped Elizabeth cultivate an enthusiasm for art I never quite managed when I was her age.

She runs from one exhibit to another, yelling, “Let’s go see more art!”

OK, so the artistic quality varies rather widely at ArtPrize. Not everything that catches Elizabeth’s eye would be regarded as fine art by most connoisseurs and curators. Every year, there seems to be an excess of kitsch and recycled scrap metal, especially among the outdoor installations.

But ArtPrize is about inviting everyone into the process of creating and experiencing art—not just the connoisseurs and curators.

Unsurprisingly, the art Elizabeth is most drawn to—the art she talks about the most afterward—is the art she can interact with.

Like “Weave Peace” by Michele Miller-Hansen, a 30-foot dome of pole and fabric outside the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Visitors are asked to write hopeful messages on colorful strips of paper and attach them to the dome, effectively transforming it into something new—something barely resembling the original, unadorned version. It wasn’t one of my favorites until I thought about what it means for an artist to invite others to contribute to—and radically alter—their own work.

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Or “Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha, inspired by the geometrical patterns of Islamic art. Her installation explores the “binaries of public and private, light and shadow, static and dynamic.” The light transforms the entire room, making it part of the exhibit. The artistic experience, in this case, would change from one space to the next. The viewer also becomes part of the exhibit—albeit temporarily—casting their shadow about the space, as Elizabeth gleefully did while dancing around the room.

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Art becomes meaningful, transformative, and captivating when we’re able to participate in it—when we’re invited to contribute to it, rather than being forced to just stand back and observe in silence.

I wonder if there’s a lesson to learn from ArtPrize about how we do theology and faith formation.

When we confine theology to the “elites,” when we reduce it to merely an academic discipline, do we lose something along the way? True, there is something to be said for advanced study and expertise. (I wouldn’t want someone who hasn’t mastered Greek or Hebrew translating the Bible for me.) But in our desire to “protect” theology from amateur interference, have we deprived ourselves of the gift of illumination from unexpected sources?

There seems to be little tolerance for imagination and creativity in theology. We act as if such things have no place here, reducing theology to something that resembles scientific analysis, dissecting texts so we can extract objective meaning from them. There is a place for all this. But what about also making room for wonder, imagination, and exploration in our theology? What about welcoming the learned and the unlearned, who turn out not to be so unlearned after all; they just have a different form of knowledge—what if we welcomed them the same table, so we can “do theology” together?

What if we intentionally blurred the lines between art and theology?

What about inviting people to participate more actively in their own faith formation? To experience religion rather than just observe it? One of the things I appreciate most about our (relatively) new spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, is that kids are welcomed as full participants. They are not second-class citizens. They aren’t on probationary membership. They don’t have restricted benefits. My daughter is welcome at the table each week. Worship is participatory—for everyone.

Encouraging her to participate in—and actively shape—the faith to which she belongs is no guarantee she’ll continue to embrace it when she grows up. But if she feels a sense of ownership—if she is encouraged to become a meaningful participant rather than a silent spectator—then it might just stay with her through life.

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5 thoughts on “What art can teach us about theology and faith formation

  1. YES. Thank you! This is exactly why I studied worship arts in college, and went on to seminary to clarify how this can be achieved. I’ve been stunned by the trepidation church leaders feel in bridging the gap between theology and art. I’ve seen handfuls of great artists leave church feeling underappreciated, and too many pastors and worship leaders feeling disrespected or confused. I’m most moved when both perspectives/passions are fused together. Both can be valued!

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  2. Many years ago I was listening to a praise and worship CD from the Vineyard movement. The song “We Will Ride” was playing and it goes like this:

    He has fire in his eyes and a sword in his hand,
    And he’s riding a white horse across this land.
    And he’s calling out to you and me, “Will you ride with me.”

    And suddenly it occurred to me that my experience of Christian faith is much more oriented around logic and the interpretation of historical events and theological concepts. I don’t have a lot of “stuff” in me that thinks in terms of riding a white horse across the land with the guy who has fire in his eyes. And yet, I thought, what if there is a whole segment of the population that is not really drawn by the Four Spiritual Laws tracts but is deeply moved to come and ride with the king when they hear the song above? What if people are drawn into the presence of God and into relationship with him through visual art, music, dance, and other artistic expressions?

    I belong to a segment of the Christian community that regards things like architecture and interior decoration as pretty much an afterthought. But what if they speak a message and about the nature and character of God and what if they make a statement about the community of faith that resides within? Would people be drawn to the presence of God if we focused more on this aspect of life?

    To me the language of art is pretty much a foreign language but I think I am missing out on something.

    On a side note, I see that you have a book coming out for children. I just pre-ordered it.

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    • That’s been my experience as well. I’m slowly awakening to the role of beauty in art in helping us connect with God. Thanks for sharing your story. (And thanks for preordering the book!)

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  3. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Art is essentially a product of the right brain or the heart-based connection to the free psyche, which is the primary dimension of what it is to be human.
    Which is to say that psyche is primary – everything is a psychic phenomenon.
    This is a psycho-physical indivisible universe.
    There is no given “objective” world apart from the process of perception, which is in turn modified by our conceptions or presumptions about it.
    We transform the world-process by our presumptions about it, most of which we are completely unconscious of.
    All of which we have inherited from the culture that we live in. From mom and dad, our schooling, our naive Sunday school religiosity, and ALL of our social media – books, magazines, music and especially TV – the anti-“culture” created by TV now rules the entire world.
    Theology is essentially a product of left-brained which, by its very nature shuts down the impulses of the right-brained psyche.
    “Paul” told us this in his famous one liner, namely that the left-brained letter always (instantaneously) shuts down the free spirit of the right-brained psyche.

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  4. Pingback: A look back at 2014 | Ben Irwin

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