Life and Art
© 2000 by David Lugo
Bringing truth, beauty and emotion into balance
In March of this year (2000), from March 7th to 9th to be exact, I had the rare privilege of attending the 9th Annual Conference on Contemporary Issues held at Westminster Theological Seminary just outside of Philadelphia (Pennsylvania). This year the topic was "Faith and the Arts, Mourning to Dancing." Since I am a screenwriter and filmmaker, I found this topic to be of special interest.
I hoped to find a mature discussion of the integration of arts with faith, something beyond the shopping mall spiritually available at our local Christian bookstores. The conference delivered more than my expectations. What I found was a conference where we could "soar to new heights." I know it is lazy to use this cliché, but my experience in past conferences of this type is that the immature believers (usually the squeaky wheels) get tripped up over differences in basic doctrine. My expectation was that good sound doctrine should provide the freedom within the boundaries to go beyond current modes of expression. This is what happened in the Reformation. Artists, musicians, and scientists were suddenly freed to pursue their callings like they had never been before.
I found the conference to have a healing affect on me. Since I had recently moved from Los Angeles to Houston (the town I grew up in), I was wondering if I should drop my frustrating "career" in the film and video industry and seek greener pastures. One of the break-out sessions I attended was on the theology of entertainment. The lecturer was a seminary professor who was grounded in orthodoxy. And from that groundedness, I found the lecture to be substantive and reassuring of my calling.
They covered many topics at this conference. The WTS campus was transformed into a gallery of sorts as visual artists were invited to display their paintings and other works. There were lectures, workshops, and performances of music and a play. When music was discussed in workshops and lectures, worship music was left out. This was a conscious choice on the organizers' part. One reason was because this topic is so large and deserves its own conference. The other reason was to counteract the Protestant tendency to minimize the arts as an "add on." This was a reaction to the abuses of Catholic aestheticism. Most Christians today still think of the arts as an "add on," hence the shopping mall quality of Christian art.
Another break-our session that really blessed me was the session on film, led by Drew Trotter. Drew is an invited lecturer who teaches at the Center for Christian Studies in Charlottesville, VA. He showed film clips from "Tender Mercies" with Robert Duvall. Drew engaged the audience to re-examine the film from an intellectual point of view and see what the filmmaker intended. I found this session as gratifying as my classes at film school.
One example of "soaring to new heights" from the context of groundedness in orthodoxy is the lecture and Jazz concert they had on Wednesday night. The lecturer explained how through good theology and a little creativity, Jazz music can really help in faith integration issues. For example, by its very history, Jazz can serve to help reconcile racial relations. Also, due to its rhythmic nature, Jazz can involve the body and help fight that Gnostic mind/body split that exists in contemporary Christianity. Jazz is immediately accessible. Jazz can help correct that tendency of privatization in worship. Like Black Gospel music, Jazz has that "Call and Response" element. Jazz is individual yet communal and it calls one to participate. After this lecture, we had a really hot Jazz concert by talented Jazz musicians who were believers.
Art is for more than personal or communal enjoyment. If integrated properly with other elements like truth and emotion, the impact can be impressive. For example, if a church emphasizes emotions over beauty and truth, one gets a Charismatic church. If a church emphasizes beauty over truth and emotions, one gets what the Catholics and Anglicans have. If you emphasize truth to the exclusion of everything else, you get the Presbyterian way of things. Imagine truth, beauty, and emotions properly integrated and balanced. This could allow us to "soar to new heights."
For more information on the Westminster Theological Seminary conference,
including online audio from several of the lectures, see
www.wts.edu/news/cic/index.html. To find out more about
Center for Christian Study (which is a L'abri-like organization), visit
them at StudyCenter.net.
Updated by: Matt Bynum