Here at Yellowstone Theological Institute, we invite questions about the relationship between theology and art in several ways. One of our mottos is “Where Faith Meets Adventure and the Arts.” Our faculty includes academics with suspicious (to most of Academia and polite society) backgrounds and ongoing involvement in music (even jazz!), literature, and film. But what does art have to do with theology? Is this just another loosey-goosey academic way to talk about arts and pop culture stuff instead of doing the real work of studying the Bible, history, doctrine, etc.?
When I’m asked how the arts relate to theology and the life of faith in general—or specifically how thinking theologically about music, movies, paintings, and literature helps theological education—I have to be very careful. Although friends, family, and many former students might doubt the existence of human emotions in some academics, most of us care and feel deeply about our work. If your eyes dim into the dreaded Glaze of Confusion-Terror while I’m waxing rhapsodic about the theological significance of Mary Lou Williams’ jazz shuffle setting of the 14th century prayer “Anima Christi,” I’ll be as offended as any football fan whose heartfelt Tom-Brady-is-the-Devil rant is interrupted by talk of Olympic Curling.
However, when it comes to the dynamic, hopeful, and historically rich relationship between theology and art, something more is at stake than any one person’s or tradition’s pet loves, styles, and tastes.
I want to offer an answer to the question of “Theology and Arts” with a small “sampler platter” of examples that demonstrate, more than explaining critically, the exciting possibilities for thinking seriously about the arts and theology. This kind of thing can be done very badly, of course. Attempts to be relevant and cool by drawing lame or strained connections to pop culture (endless sermon examples from “The Matrix” or “Walking Dead” beget strained references to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” or SNL skits) can overshadow or even derail important theological messages.
Even when dealing with higher culture and fine arts, if our imaginations and motives aren’t formed primarily by theological categories, types, narratives, and goals, we can end up letting culture—high or popular—define our terms, set our boundaries, and limit our imaginations. We must, as author and pianist Jeremy Begbie urges, cultivate artistic readings of theology as well as theological readings of art, while keeping a theological—which is to say, a Gospel-determined-end in mind.
So what are some good examples of a “right way” to do Theology and Arts? Here are a few examples—treating a mix of current popular, fine or “high”, and historically significant religious art—of how we might begin or “frame” discussions to encourage sophisticated and provocative theological discussion.
“Black Panther’s” Great Cloud of Witnesses?
At several critical moments in the wildly successful “Black Panther,” the lead characters either honor or seek guidance from their ancestors. King T’Challa (Black Panther) visits the “ancestral plane” twice to seek counsel from his father (who lives on in a peaceful afterlife with previous kings), and another character of royal descent is able to contact his own dead father. During several rituals of great importance and drama, other characters call upon “the ancestors” for aid.
Is this conscious attention to ancestors in the (fictional, but not unrepresentative) African nation of Wakanda in any way similar to the “great cloud of witnesses” Christians are called to remember as encouragement in Hebrews 12? If there are distinctions (and of course, I think there are!), how can a comparison help us better understand, but also *imagine*, a more direct and visceral way to live into the truth of Hebrews 12:1? Discussing this can help us avoid the “chronological snobbery” C.S. Lewis warned against. It can also sharpen our thinking and encourage greater understanding of how Christians across the millennia have attempted to take seriously the lessons and mysterious ongoing presence of those Christians (including martyrs, saints, and family members) who lived and died faithfully before us.
Scripture as a Zither
Drawing from previous Christian authors, influential medieval thinkers and authors Hugh of St. Victor and Bonaventure describe the relationship and value of Scripture’s many layers of meaning in terms of a stringed musical instrument: the zither. In the same way that the wood frame, the tuning pegs, and the strings all contribute to the musical sounds, so Scripture’s literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical senses all participate in allowing the Word to “sing out.”
In an era where some Christians are either ignorant or suspicious of interpreting multiple layers of Scripture, can we recover and practice this rich and resonant account of the Bible by letting the musical analogy guide us? Perhaps a renewed dedication to musical literacy within the Church could help us recognize and embrace traditional approaches as new and exciting ways of hearing Scripture’s music.
Imagining the Voices of the Voiceless and Nameless
In her first book of poetry, Black Swan, National Book Award Finalist Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon published a heartbreaking and vivid account of the terrifying story of rape and murder in Judges 19. The poem, “The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak Their Minds,” presents a contrapuntal duet between the two women in Judges 19—whose names we never learn and who do not speak in the biblical text.
Van Clief-Stefanon layers in contemporary experience of betrayal and sexual abuse to help us imagine the voices, thoughts, and personalities of these anonymous biblical characters. The raped and dismembered concubine cries out in an echo of Abel, Creation’s first victim of violence, declaring at the end: “This Earth drinks my blood in remembrance and no man will silence it. I have put my story into my sisters’ mouths and we will sing and we will wail and we will shout. Amen.”
How can this guide those of us not blessed by the “holy dread” of poetic inspiration (much less those who honestly never seem to “get” poetry) into deeper theological understanding or committed Christian living? What important perspectives and warnings can we gain from such creative artistic constructions? By inviting us to linger on the terrifying experiences and faithfully imagined interpretations of such “minor characters” in the vast sweep of the biblical narrative, Van Clief-Stefanon models an engagement with Scripture at the same level of profundity that we see in Patristic and Medieval exegesis.
How might our study—whether devotional, pastoral, or academic—of Scripture be transformed if we were to invest this kind of imaginative commitment to hearing the symphonic multitude of scriptural voices that contribute to the great music of the Gospel?
Mary the Scholar?
In Medieval and Renaissance era paintings and frescos of the Annunciation, several artists paint Mary reading a scroll or a book when Gabriel arrives to make known God’s plan for the Incarnation. Asking questions about the depiction of Mary reading (as with most unfamiliar patterns, objects, or depictions in great Medieval art) can lead us to deep theological reflection about Scripture and the “champions of our faith.”
In this case, the paintings reflect the logic that Mary’s question, response, and consent to Gabriel show a profound understanding of Scripture with respect to the Covenant, law, and prophecies concerning Israel. She’s a scholar of sorts who understands what’s happening to her and thus realizes “what time it is” in the history of God’s relationship with Israel and the nations.
When combined with her sung response to Elizabeth in Luke 2 (“the Magnificat”), we see the extent of Mary’s scholarly wisdom as she riffs on the great Songs of Deliverance of Moses, Miriam, and Hannah. She is the first person to understand the Gospel-which even then is already gestating inside of her.
In these few, diverse examples, the written, visual, or musical language of artists prods us to faithfully imaginative encounters with Scripture. Rather than casually “baptizing” bits of pop or high culture simply because we like them or want to seem sophisticated or relevant, faithful thinking and teaching via “Theology and Arts” should tighten our focus and elevate our conversations. This practice should also encourage us to rejoin the millennia of conversation with dedicated and inspired Christians who prayed, contemplated, and created as a performance of their—and our—faith.