An Interview with David McNutt
CIVA: To get started, tell us more about the new series that you are editing for InterVarsity Academic. What’s the big picture? What does or will this new project entail?
David: Our vision for the Studies in Theology and the Arts (STA) series is to provide academic-level books that will offer our readers opportunities to reflect more deeply upon the relationship between the Christian faith and the arts. Artistic expression has been and continues to be an intrinsic aspect of human existence, and the arts have often both embodied and shaped Christian thinking. With that in mind, our goal for the STA series is to provide thoughtful engagement with and critical discernment of the full variety of artistic media–including visual art, music, literature, film, theater, and more. In order to do that, we’ll be drawing upon the insights of both academic theologians and artistic practitioners. Our hope and intention is to make the STA series the premier location for serious reflection on theology and the arts. I’m excited to see where the series will go!
CIVA: Those familiar with IVP will quickly recognize that the first in the series by Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness, Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, responds to an earlier book, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, written by Hans Rookmaaker and published by IVP in the early ’70s . . .
David: Yes, absolutely. For several decades, Rookmaaker’s groundbreaking book has been influential upon Christians who have reflected upon culture and the arts, including Jonathan and Bill–in fact, Bill studied with him. It was nearly fifty years ago that Rookmaaker offered his view of the relationship between Christianity and the surrounding secular culture–in particular, that between the Christian faith and modern art as well as the calling of the Christian artist in that context. His analysis was characterized by some grave misgivings about what he perceived to be a declinist narrative. It’s clear that Jonathan and Bill both deeply appreciate Rookmaaker’s valuable contribution to the field, but they also offer their own interpretation of Christianity and modern art by arguing that there were actually strong religious impulses that positively shaped modern visual art. So, instead of affirming a pattern of decline, they argue that one can find theological engagement and inquiry across a wide range of modern art, including works by artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, David Jones, Caspar David Friedrich, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Warhol and many others. The book is also fascinating because it’s co-authored by Jonathan, who is an artist, and Bill, who is a theologian. In this volume, they embody what it looks like when the disciplines of art and theology sit at the same table for a conversation. I couldn’t think of a better way to launch the STA series.
CIVA: Why is IVP turning serious attention to the arts just now?
David: It might seem like we’re just turning to this issue, but actually, at IVP, we’ve been publishing books on this topic for many years, including works by Rookmaaker, Francis Schaeffer, and Steve Turner as well as more recent books by the likes of Makoto Fujimura. Bringing Christian insight and wisdom to bear upon our engagement with the surrounding culture has always been and continues to be part of our DNA at IVP, and that has included the arts. What is new is that we now have dedicated space in our academic line for a monograph series where these issues can be explored in depth. So, while the STA series is definitely new, in a way, it’s extending and deepening our commitment to and interest in the ongoing conversation between faith and the arts, which has always been part of our publishing profile.
CIVA: You completed your Ph.D. work in art and theology, is that right? How has that experience shaped your thinking about this general project?
Yes, I completed my doctoral work in theology and the arts at Cambridge under Jeremy Begbie on how Karl Barth’s doctrine of creation can inform our understanding of human creativity. That was a great experience. Prior to that, I studied at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St. Andrews, which was a fantastic community of theologians and artists. Having opportunities like those to reflect deeply upon theology and the arts and to have conversations with other people who were equally invested in the topic taught me not only the importance of growing in Christian wisdom in community with others but also the possibility of bringing serious, rigorous theological reflection to bear upon the arts, which are sometimes seen as superfluous to faith.
Personally, I have always found that my participation in and enjoyment of the arts has informed my understanding of who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Perhaps it had something to do with growing up in California, where the arts seem to be such a prevalent part of the culture, but alongside other aspects of my Christian life–like my reading of Scripture, communal life in the church, and prayer–the arts have deeply shaped my faith. My hope is that the STA series will be a formative influence in the faith and lives of our readers.
David McNutt is the Associate Editor, IVP Academic and the Series Editor, Studies in Theology and the Arts. He completed his Ph.D. at Cambridge University.