Friday, April 16, 2010

SST 2010: "Theology and the Arts"

Was in Manchester this week for the 2010 conference of the Society for the Study of Theology, themed "Theology and the Arts". I had a fantastic time (on many levels) with the Aberdeen University "posse". What follows are my random and unrelated reflections.

Theological Art?: Surprisingly, the conference's plenary sessions were heavy on the arts and light on the theology, which I enjoyed a little more than my more systematically inclined colleagues but was still fairly troubled by. Troubled not because I prefer theology to art, but because if your conference is going to be on the two of them working together then you ought to do better than just talk about art that expresses people's responses to God or gives people a "sense of the divine" and assume that you've done justice to the topic as stated. Oh well, it was still very interesting for what it was, and there were plenty of intriguing things said.

Women Theologians Abound!: There were a lot of women there. Maybe even more than half of the attendees were women. This pleasantly surprised me, being so used to being in male-dominated pastoral conferences and theology classes.

Opera: In opera, the music, lyrics and drama are considered one. If you read the text of an opera you aren't going to get it, since sometimes the music will contrast the words to give the true meaning of what is happening. In the opera we heard excerpts from, the text of the finale might have sounded trite, but it was sung (and apparently acted) with melancholy and complexity which made the whole of it a lot more like life than one aspect on its own could have offered alone. I liked that.

Missed Out: I had to miss the paper on the films of Tarkovsky because it was at the same time as my paper. I have since emailed the presenter for a copy. Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev is one of the all time great films.

Best discussion of the conference theme: Frances Clemson's “’The Zeal of Thine House Hath Eaten Me Up’: Dorothy L. Sayers on God and the Artist”. In it she described what sounds like an awesome Sayers' play and talked about the tension of doing art about God: If it is an end in itself it is idolatry, but at the same time great “damage is done to art when it is manipulated to suit an extrinsic devotional goal.” Sayers is clearly one of the people who has waded this tension beautifully.

Poetry Reading: I normally have trouble following poetry, especially lengthy poetry. I'm never sure how to read it. But hearing Janet Osherow read her own poetry out loud was great. She had such rhythm and built such momentum. Both witty and poignant. My favourite poem expressed her habit of praying even though she didn't really believe in God or prayer. It ended with the line: “Surprising things can happen when you start to pray, maybe angels will call my bluff.” She aptly described to us that "poems are gifts to the attentive."

A Q&A highlight: Someone asked Angus Paddison what John Howard Yoder might say to Tim LaHaye (of Left Behind). The answer given was that Yoder'd probably remind LaHaye that "the church is not itself": It does not stand above the world but always needs reform. Church is not a state but a verb.

Are novelists the new saints? That's what one presenter suggested. We look to them to walk us through life, because they get into the nooks and crannies of life and go where many of our pulpits dare not to go, or fail to go with theological daring or realism. Problem is that there are so few good novelists of this type, and that the world tends to go to its soaps rather than its saints.

Favourite Paper: Richard McLauchlan's “The Language of Silence: Divine Absence as Revelation in Light of the Poetry of R.S. Thomas.” Among many other things, in it he quotes Thomas's "The Absence", which begins: "It is this great absence / that is like a presence, that compels" and continues, "It is a room I enter from which someone has just gone." It concludes as follows:

"Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resource have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?"

Favourite Paper #2: My friend Adam gave a great paper on TF Torrance's doctrine of Scripture, particularly on the Bible as God's use of fallen language as being analogous to His incarnation in fallen human flesh.

Living Trees: Another interesting paper was on poetry about trees which speak of them anthropomorphically as if they had human feelings, treating them as subjects in order to draw out our relatedness within nature. It ended up triggering many thoughts about creation, new creation, and ecology. In it Richard Bauckham noted that though the biblical writers were not as scientifically aware of the reciprocity of people, animals, and plants, but spoke profoundly of our interrelatedness nonetheless---not only in creation but in redemption. Very interesting. It made me think of the verse which says something about the creation longing for the sons of God to be revealed, and CS Lewis's and JRR Tolkien's use of living trees in their stories to bring out just this point. In the case of Narnia, the trees are longing for redemption, and celebrate when the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are allied to Aslan in bringing just that about for the whole of their world.

Oh, and my paper went pretty well. Having now attended a conference on theology and the arts I am more convinced than ever that I need to try to get my master's thesis published---no longer simply because I would consider it a great personal accomplishment, but because I think Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday has a lot to offer this discussion. I have been rejected from two publishers so far, but am inspired to try another round.

All in all, it was a great time with my Aberdeen colleagues and a very enjoyable conference. I hope I can make next year's in York.


Dale said...

sounds awesome, jon. really. if it wasn't forbidden, i'd be coveting your time at this conference :)

Jon Coutts said...

I have no problem with you wishing to have been there. I wish you were there too. You could have taught us all a thing or two on this topic. I kid you not.

Tony Tanti said...

thanks for the breakdown of your conference, I wasn't sure what kind of stuff you were going to take part in there and now I have an idea. It sounds like it was a worthwhile trip.

Jon Coutts said...

Not sure it was worthwhile in regard to me current project, but otherwise yes, in many ways.