FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 10/28/2013


When Religion ‘Gets’ Art

 

Oct. 8, 2013  Volune 6, Issue 13

Faith +Ideas= an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College

 

By Jeffrey S. Miller

Not long ago, a prominent artistic director in New York City was speaking to a group of playwrights. He was celebrating all that they bring to culture, in particular, how they give voice to individuals and communities who before had none or who are often marginalized or persecuted. He applauded them for opening entire sub-cultures, perspectives and worlds to audiences who otherwise would not encounter them.  

 But then the director surprised them. He began to wonder out loud whether these same writers could—or would—give credible voice to those individuals or communities who might be marginalized in the future, namely, those from conservative and religious communities. He acknowledged how “people of faith” differed from those in the room with him, and wondered if major theatre companies—like his—would be willing even to open their stages to their stories. If not, he suggested, the theater was not doing its job, and would lose the opportunity to speak effectively to culture at all.

As a director and theatre professor in one of those very communities, I was encouraged to learn that this renowned director raised the issue. But I also saw how ironic his challenge was, given the very institution responsible for bringing theater back into culture was the Christian Church. And now over a thousand years later, it no longer has a viable presence or voice in that cultural expression.

What happened?  Where are the writers who can compellingly make the dramatic case for faith in theatre and art?

Let me back up. I have loved the arts my entire life, and a fair amount of credit goes to the church. I can’t recall a single childhood church service when I didn’t draw something in the bulletin margins or on the offering envelope.  Piano lessons, singing ensembles, musicals, talent competitions, even barbershop quartets were a huge part of my church life.  I don’t recall a day in my life when I have not sung: hymns, frequently; musical theatre, definitely. 

I have the church to thank for cultivating this love.  And I’m deeply grateful.       

But for all it does to inspire, at some point the church sends the message to our young artists of faith that it’s time to grow up and do something “useful.”  Or if they want to discuss the pop art they see and hear around them, church is not the place.  If they attempt serious art themselves, they must go elsewhere. Why? Probably because many churchgoers fear things could get messy, and other issues are more urgent. Besides, few really feel qualified to lead such creative explorations. 

The result is often shallow “Christian” art that is so simplistic and sentimental few outside the pew would be interested. And as many lament the lack of a Christian voice in today’s society—including the director in New York—I can’t help but respond: we have what we deserve.

In many ways, the church has become an extension of our broader culture, unconsciously embracing a dysfunctional quasi-celebrity approach to the arts.  We want the big blockbusters like “Chariots of Fire” or “Les Miserable,” but we aren’t doing what is needed to train those writers and filmmakers in our midst.  We yearn for the Rembrandt of today, but we’ve not developed the artistic vocabulary to discuss his abstraction or deconstruction. We want the new Bach, but can’t find a way to help the aspiring musician support herself while she matures as an artist.

So if the church were a better patron of the arts, the quandary that New York director presented wouldn’t be such a big deal. If our communities of faith were more deliberate about filling the gap, solidifying the foundation and watering the seedling (pick your metaphor), these artists could survive and grow and add their voices to the stages of our culture. 

What would that look like? A church could offer a corner wall to a painter exploring themes from a sermon series, and provide a stipend for time and supplies. A congregation could commission a composer/songwriter to craft a holiday piece for singers and instruments. What if a young playwright was paid to riff on biblical stories in a contemporary setting and present it as reader’s theatre?  Or a church sponsored a film festival of new works, with professional adjudicators so everyone benefited?

These efforts won’t likely yield immediate masterworks, let’s be clear.  But they will say to the church—and the larger community —that art is valued and deserves our investment, that young artists should be part of the conversation of faith, and that art reflects the creative nature of the God we worship.  Over time, we will have cultivated clear-thinking, engaged artists and audiences unafraid of challenging work, willing to be in dialogue and underscoring the importance of faith in process—whatever theatres that might take us to. 

Jeffrey S. Miller is professor and chair of theatre arts at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his wife live in Hamilton, MA.

 

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