Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Visions of Church

This afternoon, towards the end of our annual faculty retreat, we were asked to reflect on our images of church. In a gesture familiar to many who have been on church retreats, visioning committees, or even some bible studies, the Dean put construction paper, markers, scissors, tape, and crayons on tables around the room where we had been meeting. She said that in the next 15 minutes or so, we should make something that would be a visual representation of our idea of what church is or might be.

The response to this request was not surprising. Some people suddenly got deep into conversation and ignored the whole thing. Others obediently sat around the tables, but stared at the materials with that deer-in-the-headlights look that people who don't think of themselves as artistic get when confronted with the demand to "be creative." The "artistic" ones dove in, happily playing with whatever caught their fancy. Sooner or later, most got in touch with their inner child, or, at least, considered what their own school-age children might do in the same situation, and began to scribble or cut or tear paper or draw more-or-less conventional symbols that conveyed, in some mysterious way, the ideas that had been circulating around the room in words all morning.

The results, of course, bear only the slightest resemblance to the kind of art I've been writing about in this blog so far. My colleagues are accomplished scholars, much more accustomed to putting their ideas into words than into pictures. While some are dancers, musicians, or actors as well as theologians, none of the projects I saw this afternoon evidenced any engagement with the visual  or conceptual discourse that fills galleries and museums of contemporary art. Like the children's art that they resemble both in material and in style, the things my colleagues made this afternoon were not particularly well-designed or well-crafted. They were, however, the products of sophisticated minds, and they carried more meaning than one might suspect at first glance.

construction paper visions of church
At the end of the art-making session, we were invited to gather in groups of five or six to talk about what we had done. As each person shared his or her intention, the others listened intently, adding their own observations about what they saw in the colors, shapes, and symbols, and the relationships among these elements. A kind of passionate poetry emerged out of the conversation, in which a seemingly simple diagram stood for such complex notions as "the church is the place of struggle in the heart of God", or "the church is a spiral shell that draws us into a center where the divine voice may be heard". As people talked about their experience of drawing or tearing or cutting and pasting, it was clear that their ideas had changed in the process. New ideas had been engendered not by manipulating words, but by the physical manipulation of matter.

I do not want to say that this is the only, or the best, or even the most accessible way that art intersects with the church or with theological education. It is, however, a tool, a method, one of many invitations into the truth that that the Church already proclaims and that artists know in their hands and eyes and ears and bodies: that the Word of God is much, much more than words. In joining words to matter, these simple artworks became a sacrament, the outward and invisible sign of an inward and invisible grace.

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