Deborah Sokolove

Deborah Sokolove is Professor Emeritus of Wesley Theological Seminary and was previously the Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion. In addition to her teaching and writing, she also maintains an active studio practice as a painter. Her most recent book, Performing the Gospel, explores the intersection of performance, worship, theology and art, and you may explore more of her life and art through her website, dsokolove.com. 

Twenty-six years ago, I entered an extended liminal space, although I did not realize it at the time. Invited into a year of residency in the art studio at Wesley Theological Seminary’s Luce Center for the Arts and Religion (LCAR), I became what I soon realized was a rare creature — an artist in theology-land.

In 2009, I wrote about this experience in a chapter of a Festschrift in Honor of Bruce C. Birch, and I traced the history by which art and artists had been virtually banished from the Protestant theological landscape, removed almost entirely from worship and barely tolerated when put to the purposes of illustrating tracts and educating or entertaining children (Deborah Sokolove, “Art in Theology-Land,” in Lucy Lind Hogan and D. William Faupel, eds., Strangers in a Strange Land: A Festschrift in Honor of Bruce C. Birch. Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2009, 142).

Important artists and the art that they made continued to be valued in the secular world as ways to honor rulers and political leaders, remember military victories and defeats, to record the look of the natural world and its inhabitants, and, eventually, to express the inner life of the artists themselves. By the middle of the 20th century, the divorce that had started in the fifteenth was nearly complete, with the art world rejecting any expression of Christian faith as strongly as the arts had been rejected by much of the Protestant Reformation. As art historian James Elkins put it,

religion is seldom mentioned in the art world unless it is linked to criticism, ironic distance, or scandal. Art critical of religion is itself criticized by conservative writers, and it is noted with interest by art critics, but sincerely religious art tends to be ignored by both kinds of writers. An observer of the art world might well come to the conclusion that religious practice and religious ideas are not relevant to art unless they are treated with skepticism.  

(James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. New York and London: Routledge, 2004,

15-16)

But while the institutional church and the institutions of high art remained estranged, there was an often tacit and sometimes quite explicit understanding in the wider culture that there is a close connection between the arts and spiritual life. In the 1970s, this understanding began to seep into at least some churches and seminaries, as artists were invited in as consultants, educators, as well as to provide artworks in worship spaces, meeting rooms, and elsewhere in and around the church building.

As an Artist-in-Residence in a theological seminary in 1994, I was hoping for a theology of art that saw my calling as vital to the church. Thinking I would be welcomed home from a long exile, I instead found myself in theology-land, a foreign country where the visions and methods of myself and my fellow artists were often suspect, our disciplines misunderstood, and—too often—our contributions undervalued. In the land of theology, I and my fellow artists learned the foreign language of systematic theologians, biblical scholars, preachers, and ethicists. In turn, we found ourselves teaching the theologians to read the language of color, line, and form, to see how ideas are embodied in music, poetry, pictures, sculptures, and even buildings

It wasn’t always an easy conversation. Looking for a guide through the complicated terrain of history and ethics, I found that the assumptions about the purpose and processes of art are often radically different than what I learned in art school. Indeed, it turns out that theologians, for the most part, do not address art systematically. When theologians do talk about art, it is usually in the context of aesthetics, where the essential subject matter is beauty and its relationship to God.

Frequently, when theologians want to take art seriously and begin to construct a theology of art, there is an underlying assumption that beauty is the point or purpose of art. For me and for many other artists, however, the paramount virtue of art is truth, or meaning. This definition is, of course, not universally agreed upon, nor is the devaluation of beauty. That lack of universality is exactly the point—artists today may or may not be interested in beauty, and the excellence of any given artwork may lie more in its truthfulness or meaning than in its aesthetic appeal. Indeed, much very good contemporary art is intentionally ugly, and for theologians to declare it beautiful is to distort the meaning of the word beyond any useful definition.

Despite the difficulties and misunderstandings, there were also many joys to be found in the liminal space that lies on the border of theology and the arts. I continue to be nourished by the many deep conversations with my theological colleagues and the lasting friendships that grew out of the struggle to make ourselves mutually understood. Another joy was to see the parallels between reading scripture and reading art, and to recognize the artistry of both scripture itself

and scriptural interpretation in new ways. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction if all was to see a student’s eyes light up when they told me that something they had discovered in the art studio— wrestling with the intransigence of matter and the skill of their hands to embody an inner vision —led to the answer to a theological question that no amount of reading and writing had been able to solve.

After all those years of exploring the interstices of art and faith in an institutional setting, this past summer I entered a new liminal space, retiring from my position as Director of LCAR. Now that I have the freedom to make my own schedule, to say no to any project that does not make my heart sing, to sleep late and read books that have nothing to do with the Theological Education and the Arts project that defined so much of my life, I am once again a stranger in a strange land. As I cross this threshold, I look for familiar signposts, but everything has been rearranged, and I find mystery beckoning me onward into a future that I cannot yet discern.