Something to Say to Each Other

David Wilmington, YTI Professor of Theology and Philosophy

January-February 2019 Inscribed

The approach to theology and the arts built into the curriculum and other areas of YTI assumes that both elements should inform and affect each other. Theology has something to say to the arts and the arts have something to say to theology. This is true not just in the sense of the “study of” the history and concepts of theology and art; the actual process of thinking, inspiration, and “making” involved in both theology and art should speak to the other discipline.

In other words, human “making” in the arts is not simply a nice, cultured, or fun add-on to the “real business” of academic or dogmatic theology. At the same time, serious, faithful, intellectually rich theology is not simply a source to be plundered for cheap gravitas or provocation in the artistic world.

A New Attitude of Harmony

green and purple heads facing eachother

This attitude is fairly new in the world of Christian higher education, despite the longstanding recognition of the role that music has always played in worship and the high esteem many prominent theologians have had for music as an example of Christian excellence (Karl Barth’s writing on Mozart comes to mind.) Within the last 25 years or so, thanks largely to the work of a few university based institutes, but also to individual scholars and artists such as Jeremy Begbie, Ralph Wood, and Mako Fujimura, we have seen a gradual but intensifying growth in substantive, informed, creative engagements between theology and almost every form of art.

In my own research and in my work designing and teaching the curriculum at YTI, I have tried to perform this mutually inspiring harmony of art and theology in the related but distinct roles of teacher, writer, and musician. Our courses include music, painting, film, novels, and poetry as “theological texts” that can enlighten us when doing “regular theology,” and we pay attention to the artistry and teaching of theology to hear what guidance and inspiration it can offer us as artists and audiences.

Enriching Ministers and Servant Leaders Through Art

The goal is to educate and form ministers and servant leaders who are better equipped to hear, follow, create, and lead because their understanding of the nature and relationship of humans, Creation, and God is immeasurably enriched by serious involvement with art.

J.R.R. Tolkien explains—in poetic form—that humans, though now “estranged” and “disgraced,” were created to be makers and creators of art acting under the authority of the true Creator King. This is entirely fitting for a world which, as St. Bonaventure describes it, “is shown by Scripture to run in a most orderly fashion … like an artfully composed melody” because it was created by the One, True Artist.

Experiencing a range of art, some created explicitly as Christian and some not, as an integral part of theological education and the theological “performance” of ministers, leaders, and scholars helps us better understand and live into our God given right as “sub-creators.” As Tolkien wrote, “The right has not decayed. / We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

Forming Christian leaders and teachers with the experiences, insights, and skills shaped by serious attention to Theology & the Arts is a critical part of theological education for the 21st century.

Dr. David Wilmington is professor of theology and philosophy. He has taught at Baylor University, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of A Pregnant Silence: Negative Theology and Virtues Ethics (forthcoming, Fortress Press). Through interdisciplinary work in contemporary and medieval theology, music, and ethics, David explores creative ways to help train people as faithful improvisers of the Gospel. He loves soccer, hiking, playing saxophone, and jazz evangelization.

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