Attentiveness: Theology and the Arts - Gordon Conwell

Attentiveness: Theology and the Arts

Leighton Ford is an evangelist.

Leighton Ford is an artist. He is not just artistic in his speech and preaching, but he is a visual artist who works mostly in watercolor—like in the painting above.

Preaching is an art more than a science, and the arts are vehicles for communication. In Leighton Ford’s life, his passion has been to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ in creative and appropriate ways. This includes analogies, allegories, stories, and testimonies—as well as reading from letters, or quoting well-known men and women. Later in life, he began to communicate something of the beauty of God and God’s creation through painting. The two are not unrelated.

Christians throughout the centuries have often written about the appropriateness of music, instruments, rhythm, icons, and statues for Christian communication. Themes in these theological writings include the mind and emotion, the clarity of communication through arts, as well as concerns about miscommunicating through art, the proscription in the second commandment about images, the purpose and value of arts, and the priority of Word over image or music. Many have written about such issues,[1] but in this instance, I would like to say a word about theology and the arts at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Gordon-Conwell has supported and encouraged the arts throughout the decades, but in more passive and indirect ways. We have attracted many accomplished artists to study at Gordon-Conwell, and some have carried their theological training into the world of art through careers in the visual arts and in music.[2] But among our traditional emphases at Gordon-Conwell (which includes preaching, thoughtful exegesis, missions, etc.) theology and the arts was not included. That is changing.

As we worked on our strategic plan (2020-2021) for the coming decade, we came to a new conviction that the gospel needs to be expressed in many culturally appropriate ways. These include engaging in the arts along with writing, teaching, and preaching. As we move forward, we want to see the beauty of God and God’s mission in the world expressed through the arts. We want our students and future alumni to think creatively about using the arts in their own ministries, and to know how to support and encourage their parishioners (and especially younger people) to explore artistic expression for the glory of God. We are beginning this effort by hosting a theology and arts symposium on the Charlotte campus this fall titled, “Humanity Redeemed: The Theological Vision of Georges Rouault.” You are invited to attend.

The arts, such as a beautiful painting or thoughtful poem, can direct our thoughts and meditations toward the ineffable beauty, power, and love of God, our wise Creator and loving Savior. “Consider the lilies,” and think of what they tell us about their creator.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge . . .” (Psalm 19:1-2)

[1] Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric (New York: Paulist Press, 2000); Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020); Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (London: T and T Clark, 2000), among others.
[2] Some examples include Barb (Ernst) Prey who was a classmate of mine at Gordon-Conwell; Melanie Spinks (MABS ’07) who was commissioned to do a large Gothic art piece at the Charlotte campus; (Kirby) William Kautz (MATS ’93) was also a classmate of mine; Elizabeth Ostling Klein (MASF ’17) is the principal flute for the Boston Pops and associate principal flute for the Boston Symphony.

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.


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