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The Dean's Perspective

The Arts at Duke Divinity School

Why has Duke Divinity School decided to focus its Convocation & Pastors’ School this year on arts in the life of the church? Indeed, even more fundamentally, why should those who are engaged in the church’s ministry care about the arts? I propose four reasons why the arts matter for the church and why we support this endeavor at Duke Divinity School.

First, whether we recognize it or not, the arts surround us: we are immersed in images, music, and stories. If theological education focuses only on ideas and fails to reflect critically on the artistic media that shape our imaginations, we will be tone-deaf to the creative ways and means the gospel may use to challenge and transform us. As philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff has observed, the arts can provide “data” for theology. If we want to teach students about sacramental sensibility, we can assign a dogmatic essay, but it may be equally effective to have them look at van Gogh’s paintings and read poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Second, acts of corporate worship embody some artistic form. The question is whether we will do it well or badly. Will our hymns and proclamations beckon hearers to explore “the beauty of the infinite” (David Bentley Hart), or will they recycle sentimental clichés? For example, far more Christians have imbibed theology through singing the Psalms or the hymns of Charles Wesley than through reading the tomes of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. If worship inherently includes artistic expression, then those who care about worship should care about the arts.

Third, participation in the activity of the arts might teach us crucial skills for the life of obedient discipleship. Consider: might participation in a choir shape in us disciplines of listening, self-restraint, and cooperation that would form us into more wise and peaceful people? Recent Duke Divinity graduate Bonnie Scott D’11 notes how her experience in the crafts of sewing and woodworking informed the way she approaches preaching (see her essay in this issue of DIVINITY). It is no coincidence that she won a national award for best student preaching and won awards for her art in competitions sponsored by the New Creation Arts Group here in the school.

Finally, because we are made in the image of God the Creator, we are destined to be creators of images and stories. It’s in our flesh and bones. God is the great artist who conceived and constructed the intricate cosmos, the sculptor who shaped the human form out of the mud of the earth. God is the poet who imagined Israel’s improbable epic drama and then inspired psalmists and prophets to sing the story and to reimagine it for later generations living new chapters in the drama of exile and return. If we are made in the image of such an inventive God, it follows that we will be makers of shapes, symbols, songs, and stories.

For all these reasons, during my term as dean I have sought to focus attention on our new program, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, under the direction of Professor Jeremy Begbie. We now have several students in our Th.D. program whose work engages the intersection of arts and theology. Additionally, during the past year we have sponsored numerous public events to celebrate and investigate the arts in the life of the church. These have included musical performances, lectures by internationally recognized artists, and intentional focus on incorporating art into the space of the Divinity School. You can read more about these events and initiatives in this magazine in our “Events and News” section. Of course, I must also mention our annual fall event, Convocation & Pastors’ School, at which novelist Marilynne Robinson will be a featured speaker, alongside Professor Begbie and jazz musician Anthony Kelley of Duke University’s music department.

When we sing with the psalmist, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6), we declare that all creation breathes with the life of the logos. And so, through our arts, we are rendering back to God the creative praise that is fitting. This matters for the life of the church, and so it matters for Duke Divinity School.

Richard Hays is the Dean and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. For more of his thoughts on the relationship between theology and the arts, see his essay at Faith & Leadership .