The art of the church is theology for the masses. That’s what Professor Todd Johnson told his students this week at Fuller Theological Seminary’s New York City Immersion class. Johnson has been teaching for eight years at the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary, which “empowers and equips a new generation of artists and church leaders to effectively integrate worship, theology, and the arts.”
Johnson, editor of The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the 21st Century and coauthor of Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue, also develops apps and software to teach students about the intersection of theology and the art of worship.
His class, in its first year, is geared towards young Protestant professional artists who also care deeply about understanding the theological implications of their trade. The fifteen students hailed from several countries around the world, including England, Ireland, Singapore, and Spain. All agreed that the Protestant church needs to reincorporate the use of beauty, while avoiding the temptation to tailor church to consumers.
One obstacle to this project is the difficulty of being a theist in the art world. This was not always the case, nor, believes Makoto Fujimura, does it have to be today. Fujimura, artist and author of Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, welcomed Fuller’s small class into his International Arts Movement (IAM) building on W 39th street. Makoto—Mako for short—says his favorite museum is the Cloisters, one of the four required exhibits chosen to help students understand how art has the power to shape culture. (The others included the Highline, the Broadway show, “A Trip to Bountiful,” and a one-day gallery crawl through Chelsea).
Fujimura says of the Cloisters, “I feel at home there. And I feel connected to the past.” This connection animates his work: “We have lost touch with traditions in the past. I believe it is one of my calls as an artist to start a conversation, to bring a sense of mystery, of faith, back into culture. We face lack of understanding of history and tradition.”
The students said the Cloisters helped them to understand how art is theology for the masses. In the Middle Ages, when most Christians were illiterate and lacked immediate access to Scripture, artists transmitted biblical stories and theological truth through images that everyone could read.
If Mary was painted larger than Jesus, this may have made some Christians feel entitled to place more importance on the blessed mother than the savior. The first crucifixes carved when Rome remained the center of power in the world, held a Jesus strong and firm, with proportionate muscles, a head held high, and a straightforward gaze. The viewer would have been captivated by his strength, and his courage, to suffer well. After St. Francis received the stigmata, in the 13th century, crucifixes changed their depiction of Jesus, and the savior portrayed a body emaciated, wounded, with a sagging head. This helped change how viewers thought of their Jesus: the depiction of this suffering body helped Christians more thoroughly understand his suffering heart.
So-called “Romophobia” has led many contemporary Protestant churches to refrain from incorporating stained glass windows and other ornaments, yet more are recognizing that beauty can draw one closer to faith in Christ. The idea that the artist has a compelling responsibility to use his talent as a form of worship is evidenced in the Old Testament in Exodus, when God tells Moses that he will show him the artists he has chosen to design the temple decorations (Exodus 35:30-35). It was a great honor to be one of these artists—their names live forever in Scripture.
Now that art, long nurtured at the bosom of the church, has come to be seen as part of secular culture, Fuller Theological Seminary aims to use this pilot class as a catalyst for a conversation in the international art world: What kind of training do artists who are Christians need?
Mako says that even today, artists create a trickledown effect; they reinforce themes prevalent in post- modern culture, and this is why artists must be careful to be relevant, but not over-commodify their work to the point of dehumanization. He traces the problem of over-commodification back to the Enlightenment. After artists were no longer under the protection of great philanthropists, a need arose to satisfy the cycle of cultural supply and demand.
“Do we need a unicorn tapestry in the world?” asks Mako, referring to the Cloisters’ most famous holdings. The answer, I think, is yes. Art is a necessity, especially as a way of communicating theology. Many might be tempted to think of art as a gift, and therefore, that the world would exist “well enough” without such extras and overinflated resources. But, as Mako says, God has called us all to be “little artists” that steward and create just like the first man and woman.
Katherine Devorak is a summer intern at First Things. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.