Pedagogical Perspectives on worship, theology and art: Part II

This is part 2 of an extended series of pedagogical reflections, which, as you have probably already guessed, follows upon on part 1.

2. The lack of a common vocabulary with respect to art, theology and worship.

A lack of common vocabulary makes it difficult to engage a fruitful discussion in this field, especially when teachers and students use terms at cross-purposes. This is compounded by the fact that students will come un-equally prepared to discuss the arts, whether as a general category or with respect to any given media. As with any other discipline, the arts involve a high degree of specialized terminology, which few of us, unfortunately, have been trained to use intelligently. One common point of confusion is the term itself, art. Considering the multiplicity of contexts in which it is employed, from religion to commerce, from MFA departments to NFL Highlight Videos, the term can refer to a wide semantic range. What it means to classical Greek philosophical contexts will vary significantly from Medieval, Modern or contemporary contexts.  At a popular level, for instance, the term is often, and regrettably, used synonymously with visual art. (Why this is so continues to befuddle me. It also leads to curious but persistent and not terribly helpful pairings such as “art and literature” or “art and music,” as if the latter did not also belong to the genus of art.)

A second arena of vocabulary will involve Christian theology. Here we have not only a linguistic problem, we also have a problem of general ignorance regarding the doctrines and practices of Christian faith as they have developed throughout history. While the lay Christian will have heard the term Trinity, for example, they may not fully understand what it means or why it matters. Liturgical historian Lester Ruth, to use a practical example, begins his worship courses by posing to his students the question, “If God is Triune, what does that mean for Christian worship?” If a student lacks sufficient grasp of this key doctrine, our ability to make fruitful connections between art, worship and theology will be significantly limited. This is compounded, in turn, by the polysemic function of the term “worship” in Holy Scripture.

What is the effect of this lack of common vocabulary? In the context of a classroom there will be the potential for repeated miscommunication.

How might I respond to this challenge? I could begin with an exercise that invites the students to participate together in a concentrated task. We could take one aspect of corporate worship, say the visual and architectural arrangement of space, and explore how this space reveals or distorts a christological understanding of the church. I could take the students through a series of questions:

·      What do you see? What do you not see?
·      How does this space frame the worshiper’s experience?
·      What loves are being advanced by this space?
·      What beliefs inhere in this space?
·      To what ends does this space point the worshiper?
·      How might the space need to change or be used differently in order to counter negative or deficient christological understandings and to form the people of God in a fuller experience of Christ, whom the Scriptures present to us as fully divine, fully human?

With this line of questioning, we might discover the ways in which art-related data (for example, ideas about physicality, the senses, the emotions, the imagination or beauty) might open up or close down certain christological realities (for example, ideas about God’s strangeness and familiarity, about covenant and table, about what it means to be “together,” about our en-earthed and contextual place in the world, and so on).

What would be the hoped-for outcome? A relatively efficient access to basic vocabulary related to theology, art and worship that might then generate a common vocabulary, a common space, and a more fruitful common task.


Erling Hope said…
Consider this third "common point of confusion [concerning] the term itself, art." Arts of the last century, especially (but not exclusively) visual arts, have had baked into them a concern with undermining attempts to anchor semantic meanings to the term. "What is art?" "But is is it art?" go the common refrains. This not just coy game-playing, this is a serious challenge to the radical Abrahamic commitment to language as the thing that tells us what is really real. In this way, art is in a deep and enduring dialogue with faith.
Thanks for this observation, Erling.

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