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Theology through the Arts

Using art to express the divine

Published on:
July 11, 2018
Read time:
4 min.
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Halfway through pursuing a master’s in theology and the arts, I saw a production of W;t—a play about a John Donne scholar whose terminal cancer forces her to reevaluate her rational approach to life. As the story progresses, Vivian’s fierce intelligence breaks down, incapable of addressing the emotional and psychological needs her suffering had revealed to her. When she’s lying comatose on an operating table near the end, two medical students reflect on her harsh intellect and give her a new diagnosis: “salvation anxiety,” the mind-driven pursuit of theological knowledge at the expense of life itself. “The puzzle takes over,” one student says to another. “You’re not even trying to solve it anymore. Fascinating, really . . . Looking at things in increasing levels of complexity.” 

Watching Vivian, I saw myself. At the time, I was leading a student arts group, producing a monthly arts showcase, and planning a week-long arts festival. I was reading all the books I could find on the overlap between theology and art, and I was severely depressed. Like Vivian, the life of the mind had become a way to cope; the more I studied, the more I drifted away from the relationships and the emotional vitality that gave meaning to both. Like Rilke, stunned at a timeless sculpture, I sat in that Hollywood black box theater crying: “. . . all the borders of itself, / burst like a star: for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”

The gift of W;t was that I could learn the lessons of her suffering now, even as I wrote a final paper on the play itself. I decided to balance my research with relationship: conversations with the artists themselves about their own insights from producing the play. I talked to two actors and the playwright, and we talked about everything from what it felt like to peel back the layers of a line until you can act it with integrity, the importance of forgiveness, how the play’s structure matches a sonnet by John Donne, and more. And we weren’t just talking about ideas—we shared where the art had found its way into our own lives. Theology and art was no longer a puzzle to put together; we were exploring theology through the arts, listening for meaning within the play and within our conversations. As the Sufi poet Rumi said, 

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

The lines are not suggesting that the mind doesn’t matter but that they find their proper place in a more embodied way of living in the world. This is the lesson Vivian finally learns and shares with the audience when she leans on an IV stand and says,

Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit . . . Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.

Too often it seems we go in the opposite direction. “The Word became flesh,” and we keep trying to abstract our flesh back into words. When we engage the arts only at the level of the mind, we risk perpetuating a variety of mistakes: 

Confusing content and form. A common Christian approach to the arts uses forms in service of religious content, like letters in the mail. The envelope is the aesthetic carrier (the form of painting, sculpture, music), and it’s discarded once the message is received (the content of theology, doctrine, biblical scenes). This approach turns form and content into a false dichotomy and favors one at the expense of the other.

Prioritizing written content. It’s easy to think that art only matters when I can extract something out of it and translate it into text. In other words, the “meaning” of the art is only in the explanation of its content—the museum plaque or the textbook chapter. But in the case of W;t, the fullest meaning of the play is within the play itself, not the words I use to evaluate it—and looking for the fullness of meaning in art takes time.

Assuming knowledge. If I approach art believing I have all the right answers about the world (theological or otherwise), I will be closed off from risk and the possibility of revelation. To paraphrase the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, we must regularly go to the edges of ourselves and allow others to “populate that edge with information and insight.” That requires an active choice to stay open to new ideas. 

Reacting in ignorance. If we don’t understand art, if we don’t allow ourselves to set aside our preconceived theological ideas, then we haven’t risked anything. This is why St. Benedict writes in his monastic rule, “let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: ‘I was a stranger and you took Me in’ (Matthew 25:35).” When we engage art, we are engaging the work of artists made in the image of God—and hospitality should be extended to both. 

These mistakes are another form of “salvation anxiety”—the wrong pursuit of a good thing that separates us from the thing we desire most. The real irony in all of this is that there are real spiritual longings in art today that many writers and critics don’t seem to have the language or confidence to address. Did you know shamanism is making a comeback? That there’s a new chapel that combines art with religious forms? That this year’s Met Gala theme combined high fashion with liturgical vestments? Theology through the arts is happening with or without our friendship and the rich theological and spiritual resources we could bring.

In W;t, Vivian’s love of John Donne’s poetry blinds her to the relationships where the meaning of those poems could be worked out—is it possible that our own theologies have done the same? That the Spirit is moving right under our noses and through the arts? My friend Maria Fee said, “art helps us participate in its own life, we’re swallowed up into it.” This is theology through the arts, not an anxious appraisal of it, and if we start there, in simplicity and kindness, we might find ourselves beyond our abstract ideas and walking into the fullness of the world.

Michael Wright
Michael Wright is a Nashville native living in Los Angeles where he works as an editor for FULLER studio. He writes regularly on spirituality, poetry, and art in his weekly newsletter Still Life, and you can find him on Twitter @mjeffreywright.

Cover image by shraga kopstein.

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