Holy Week 2010

The Arts, Scripture and the Future of Theology

Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts’ first major project in partnership with Cambridge University provided the opportunity for a group of 12 participants from Duke Divinity School to take part in a week of artistic and theological collaboration.

For five days the group was steeped in music, worship, and academic inquiry, rooted in the historic setting of King’s Chapel and set against the theological backdrop of Holy Week. Centered on the themes of the passion narrative, the event took participants through an intense and enriching journey, both musically and spiritually.

“Sitting each day beneath the stunning and world-famous vaulted ceiling of King’s College Chapel, we were drawn through the long voyage of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, into a powerful musical and poetic journey to Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, and on to the stark simplicity and beauty of the Good Friday service,” said Jeremy Begbie, Thomas A. Langford research professor of theology and director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.

Alongside the public concerts and services, private opportunities to continue the theological conversation included a dinner in the King’s College Saltmarsh Dining Suite, co-hosted by members of Cambridge’s Divinity Faculty, with special guest James MacMillan, a Scottish Catholic composer.

MacMillan was composer-in-residence at King’s for the duration of Holy Week, made possible by support from The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation. He also took part in the Duke-Cambridge program, titled “The Arts, Scripture and the Future of Theology,” and ran in conjunction with the King’s music festival. Scholars from Duke and Cambridge met over the course of three days to explore artistic engagements with the New Testament passion narratives.

Their guiding question, “What can the arts contribute to theology in the church and academy in the future?” was asked and answered on many levels throughout the week, Begbie said, as art and theology played out publicly and privately, through performance, and through dialogue.

The week culminated in a performance of MacMillan’s St John Passion on Good Friday, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, before an audience that filled the Chapel and was broadcast worldwide by the BBC. This was the first performance of the piece within a liturgical space.

Ellen Davis, the Divinity School’s Amos Ragan Kearns distinguished professor of Bible and practical theology, offered a closing homily at King’s College Chapel on Maundy Thursday.

“Think of this evening as theatre, improvisational theatre,” she said. “Ready or not, you are being called onto stage, into the drama of God’s love for the world. Now here is your scene: It’s Thursday evening. Knowing he will die tomorrow, Jesus has just thrown himself at your feet with these words: ‘I would do it all over again, for you.’ Now, warm to your part. How does it feel to hear that from the One whose love can never die? God in flesh and blood is at your feet. As this three-day drama unfolds, how will you respond?”

The candles of King’s Chapel were re-lit later in the evening for an evening of poetry and music led by Begbie.

At its center were nine of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the Britten setting performed by tenor Richard Edgar-Wilson. The group journeyed from  the hammering depths of “O my blacke Soule” through the central, tormented question “What if this present were the world’s last night?” through the poignancy of “Since she whom I lov’d” to the final, assured declaration “And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

“Begbie led us through different sequences of the passion narrative in a way few have ever experienced,” said David Crabtree, a participant in the program as well as an award-winning anchor with WRAL TV. “The power of the music and emotion is difficult to adequately describe.”

“We have just begun to see what can be brought forth when theology and arts are combined,” Duke Divinity School Dean L. Gregory Jones said at the conclusion of the program. “This dream, not a fantasy, this dream has been realized this week, and much more can be done.”