What is your highest priority?

Scholarships for students, especially at the doctoral level. I would like Duke to be known worldwide as a place where students can be inspired and equipped as leaders in this field. At present we can only support a small number of students financially. This needs to change.

You will be resident at Duke one semester each year (currently spring) and the other semester at Cambridge. What collaborative opportunities will this provide for the two institutions?

For many years I’ve been working as a theologian amidst the arts in the United Kingdom. I’ve been fortunate enough to make many contacts and build a number of networks, not least in Cambridge. It seems foolish to give these up. So I shall be spending a fair amount of time building links between Duke and Cambridge. The theologians at each place have a lot in common. Also, Duke has a rich artistic history and, well, let’s just say Cambridge is not exactly short of artistic excellence either. Next Easter (2010) some of us will be meeting together to explore opportunities for collaboration in the future. 

Given the many challenges before the church today, why and how are the arts important?

The arts should always matter to the church because the arts are part of being human: no society has yet been discovered that has done without the arts in some form. The arts also shape the way we live. Music affects the lives of thousands of young persons — forming the “soundtrack” of their lives; novels have changed the way countless people perceive the world; our architectural environment has a major impact on the way we relate to each other — think of the design of a church building. Of course, quite how the arts shape us is a complex business; but that they shape us, and often in profound ways, is undeniable.

But more is at stake than this. Today, it’s often through the arts that people are exploring “the big questions” of life and death. And this can happen far beyond the church. In my own field, music, there are countless examples — the  songs of U2, the music of Nick Cave, Moby, John Adams, Harrison Birtwistle, Alanis Morissette.

The Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow recently undertook some research which suggests that in North American society there is a very close link between a growing interest in religious questions at large, and an increasing participation in the arts. He found that the arts have played a key role in the spiritual journeys of thousands. Clearly, the church needs to be alert to these currents of questioning and questing — however confused and misdirected they sometimes are.

What do you see as the future of sacred music?

I would like to think the future will be one where we are asking theological, gospel-based questions about the music we sing, rather than simply questions of taste (“Do you like this or that style?”). The so-called “worship wars” are consuming far too much of our energy at present. It’s time to re-orient our musicians around the questions that really matter, such as: What is worship? What does music do in worship? Does our music reflect the enormous emotional range of the gospel? As I see it, the whole debate needs to be re-directed. Duke Divinity School could have a key part to play here.

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