Bringing Arts and Theology Together

Restorative Table Justice

A sample of finished pottery from Clay Forms: Restorative Table Justice

About 17 people gathered in Caldwell Chapel last night to consider the possibilities of “Arts and Theology Integrated,” possibilities held evocatively before our imaginations by Women’s Center J-Term 2009 Artist-in-Residence Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones.

As Ann wove together insights into the reality of doing theology — “articulating the form of our understanding of God” and “giving form to the desire for reconnection with God” — and the reality of making art — the exploration of new symbolic forms, using “other ways of speaking to the body” — she made increasingly clear just what the church misses in keeping art and theology apart, excluding art from the theological conversation, and theology from the conversation of the arts. And she gave her audience — which assembled in Caldwell Chapel, undaunted by the impending snow — glimpses of what the church might gain from such a marriage of faith seeking understanding and spirit seeking expression in form.

Ann reminded us of the sacramental theology of the Reformed tradition, in which “ordinary materials” are made, by divine fiat, into sacred spaces, capable of communicating to us the presence and promise of God and the operation of invisible grace. The tactile mode of knowledge characteristic of the artist, characteristic of children, characteristic perhaps of the disciples at Emmaus who first recognized Jesus in the very ordinary — familiar, tangible — act of breaking bread around a table like the one around which they had last seen their friend and savior, has the capacity to open our understanding, beyond the verbal and conceptual formulae of creeds and propositions. But at the same time, the words of Scripture and testimony, reflection and shared recollection, have the capacity to enrich and deepen the conversation between artist and material that issues in the work of art, to shed light on that personal conversation, and to encourage it to return to and enlighten the conversation of the wider community.

If form provides the occasion for the temptations of idolatry, Ann pointed out, this is no less true of the fixed forms of theology done with words than of the symbolic forms of theology done in clay or wood or color. Quoting Hölderlin (if, in some vessel, we see glimpses of the divine, let us then break the vessel, lest the divine turn into human work), she suggested that perhaps the vessel that needs breaking is the one that separates art and and theology. She intimated that the proliferation of forms, donated by a body of artists to the community gathered around font and table, is yet another way of breaking the static and limiting forms that are the price we pay for idolatry.

There was more! But this will give Wimminwise readers a taste of the richness of reflection and insight Ann served up last night. We were privileged to be part of this shaping, transformative program. Thank you, Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones!!

The studio set up for Ann’s class Clay Forms: Restorative Table Justice will shortly vanish into boxes and bins and return to its various sources. But the class’s beautiful works are slated to be on display in the Winn Center dining room February 2-13, and Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones will be returning March 19 to lead a hands-on workshop in the Women’s Center, “How Then Shall We Thrive?” designed to address the issues faced by women in ministry. We are looking forward to it! [Here’s online registration for that workshop]


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