Three young and beautifully turbaned African American women sit center stage. They mirror in their demeanor, placement, and clothing the heavenly beings depicted in Andrei Rublev’s 1425 icon of the Trinity. The women’s message derives from Dannielle Carr’s thesis Where Were You? An Exploration of the Presence of God—a literary project which follows Dannielle’s account of her husband’s six-year struggle with cancer. The metered delivery of inquiries, and her sharp observations regarding the quotidian, create a poetic space amid affliction, darkness, and confusion.
The same event also highlights Melody Frost’s thesis, Itineraries for the Way Home, a body of art which subverts the static coordinates of maps via their de- and re-construction. Melody employs the maps as markers of place—either personally negotiated or hoping to eventually inhabit. The project addresses issues of place and hospitality as contrasted with alienation and rootlessness.
This year, a total of fourteen seminarians completed the nine-month Capstone Theology and Art class as part of Brehm Center’s integrative theology and arts programming at Fuller Seminary.* ArtVentures is the culminating event, where students present their thesis projects to friends, family, and the Fuller community. As their instructor, I served as guide as they engaged their seminary training wedded with art practice while researching various pertinent topics. This amalgam enables them to probe the felt inconsistencies of their world.
Beth Windom is another graduate. Her project utilized the medium of clay to examine theologically her battle with Lyme’s disease. Meanwhile, Steven Henderson’s film project A God We Never Knew enters ethical discourse to spark Christian dialogue surrounding race, privilege, and justice.
As a trained artist, and theologian, I am often rankled by the disparities between the theological assertions of the seminary classroom and the ambiguities of the embodied Christian life. I sit in the distance between the theologian’s proclamations and the artist’s intuitive gestures. Correspondingly, having worked in ministry, I have noted how often belief and work are often understood sequentially: if you believe rightly, then you will act accordingly. Yet, what producing art has taught me is that the line between concept and execution is rarely a straight one.
Painting informs my theological training regarding adaptability, contingency, and fortuity. Culture making, similarly, whether it is through art or theology, is not a simple prescription of mind over matter.
Where a typical Western theological posture tends to blip over the messy issues surrounding embodiment and materiality, the act of making art confuses that stance. Thus, the Capstone Theology and Art course has become a space where theology can take root and grow in the fertile ground of art. Young seminarians engage a different model for doing theology, one that closes the gap between thinking and doing, faith and work, theology and spirituality. Art offers them an untamed frontier for theology, an opportunity for exercising critical judgment alongside pastoral practices. It can uproot and tear down, as well as plant and build. Art is both conceptual and concrete. One can lose oneself in doing or viewing art but also appreciate its analysis. Art can be beautiful and smart at the same time. Art practice, alongside theology, can extend theology beyond propositions, prescriptions, and the inadequacy of words.
Although our society may not adequately comprehend the value of art, God saw to it that participation in the arts would be beneficial for humans. Art—both the viewing and the making of it—provides an intangible, difficult-to-delineate space where insights regarding the self, others, God, and his world have room to formulate, shift, and then re-form. This is a good reason for seminarians to follow the example of Chad Loucks, whose project was a screenplay depicting the forbidding texture of a dystopian world, during which process, he also formulated his own sense of public theology and ethics. As a pastor, he will, through this experience, be more acutely aware of the realities facing his congregants.
In a world longing for beauty, mystery, and connection, Christians need to offer different theological models to come alongside the systemic habits of the West. The art of making is one more way to draw people closer to God.
*The Brehm Center is a Christ-centered, spiritually nourishing community that guides and resources leaders to care for culture, creatively explore and express their calling, and critically integrate worship, theology, and the arts through academic and cultural programming and resources.
Image captions (top to bottom)
Matt Aughtry, Andrew Neal, and Jonathan Stoner, Mother of the Desert, Film.
Beth Windom, Cairns, Clay stacks.
Melody Frost, Itinerary IV (detail), Mixed media.
Melody Frost, Itinerary III, Mixed media.
Beth Windom, Maria Fee, Melody Frost, and Dannielle Carr at graduation.
Maria Fee is an artist with an M.F.A. in Painting, and an M.A. in Theological Studies. Past ministry activities include work with New York City artists, exploring faith and vocation. As an adjunct professor, Maria assists seminarians to integrate their theological explorations through an art medium. She is a candidate for a Ph.D. in Theology and Culture at Fuller Seminary.