Sharing in God’s creation through art and music

We learned about the spiritual practices of contemporary artists, dancers and musicians and how this informed their work.

As God struggles with the recalcitrant material of human nature so that we can share in God’s divine life, so artists grapple with their material—visual, sonic and kinetic—to create something good, beautiful and true.
This striking analogy summed up, for me, a week-long programme at Otago University titled Theology in the Company of the Arts, taught by Dr Trevor Hart, Professor and Director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Andrews University, Scotland.
Most of the week comprised full-day lectures and a rather gruelling reading schedule of about  500 pages on theology, art theory, philosophy and music.
Students came from throughout the country to study a vast and diverse range of thinkers and artists who have contributed to the way we understand God. With so many of the students active in lay or ordained church leadership, I would not be surprised to see a dramatic shift in the way we worship, nationwide, in a variety of denominations.
What a rich and varied week it was! We learned about the spiritual practices of contemporary artists, dancers and musicians and how this informed their work. We looked at paintings: Valazquez Kitchen Scene in the House of Martha and Mary was particularly striking in the way it combined the gospel with critical reflection on the cultural practice of the time.
We listened to music and heard how Anglican priest, theologian and conductor Jeremy Begbie explicates Christian doctrine such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ and the Eucharist through sound and music. We watched Baz Luhrmann’s1996 film Romeo and Juliet, renowned for its post-modern style, and I for one questioned whether we could tell the gospel story using similar techniques.
Looking, listening, being presented with theoretical approaches, discussion and conversation generated many stimulating questions. Can art be a way in which society reveals itself in any particular age? Is the theological thought of a particular age helpful in illuminating thinking about art or is the opposite the case?
What does aesthetic contemplation have to do with spirituality? Can the visual and musical arts instruct the viewer or listener in religious truths, now that we understand the crucial importance of individual learning styles? What does C S Lewis really think about culture and Christianity? What about icons? Do we need to worry about idolatry? Is art God’s call to help us complete the world which he has made?
After the academic part of the course was completed, Chrysalis Seed Trust, a Christchurch-based Christian arts organisation, offered a one-day seminar and the opening of The Art of Theology, an exhibition at Salisbury House Gallery, Dunedin.
There were talks by Dr Hart and six New Zealand Christian artists: Sister Mary Horn, Andrew Panoho, Sudhir Kumar Duppati, Esther Hansen, Kees Bruin and experimental liturgist Mark Pierson.
This stimulating and inspiring approach to our lives with God may be going through a growth spurt. Already other symposiums in Christianity and the Arts are planned, one at least in Wellington. I look forward to them.
Susan Frykberg is lay pastoral coordinator in St Brigid’s parish, Feilding.