The School of Theology. Sewanee: The University of the South


David Brown to Lecture on Experiencing God Through the Arts

Guerry Auditorium,

This year’s DuBose guest lecturer is David Brown, professor of theology, aesthetics and culture at the University of St. Andrews. His three lectures will take place over two days, Oct. 1–2, all in Guerry Auditorium at the University of the South, and are open to the public. On Oct. 1, he will speak first at 9 a.m. and again at 2:45 p.m. On Oct. 2, he will speak at 9 a.m. Directions to the University are available here.

Born in Galashiels in the south of Scotland and educated at the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge, David Brown taught for 14 years at Oxford and for 17 years at Durham before becoming professor of theology, aesthetics & culture at the University of St. Andrews in 2007. While in his earlier academic career, his main interest was in relations between theology and philosophy, while more recently  focusing on interactions between theology and the arts and culture. This has resulted in a series for five books for Oxford University Press: Tradition and Imagination (1999), Discipleship and Imagination (2000), God and Enchantment of Place (2004), God and Grace of Body (2007) and God and Mystery In Words (2008). He was elected to Britain’s most prestigious body for the humanities in 2002, as a fellow of the British Academy.

Brown’s lectures will encourage reflection on how the Christian experience of God can be deepened through a wider engagement with the arts. Christianity is commonly described as a religion of the word. While that is true, it is important to remember that God has also given us bodies and senses that range far more widely, while even the word is not just a matter of the purely verbal or literal but rather also has the power through our imaginations to open up further experiential horizons. Past generations of Christians were often much more aware of such possibilities than we are today. While the lectures will therefore draw on the past, the intention is to make them relevant to life in the contemporary church. Inevitably, given his background the outlook of the lecturer is quintessentially British and European. Nonetheless, he will endeavor to provide plenty of examples from the American context, to encourage audience participation and dialogue.  

Lecture #1 — Art and architecture in Christian discipleship
Because modern commentary on religious paintings is commonly written by secular art historians, the way past or present art attempts to engage the religious viewer is often ignored. We need then to re-focus our eyes to see the kind of truth claims being made and their potential impact on our lives. And that applies to all art from medieval icon to Raphael, from Cézanne to Warhol. We have largely lost our sense of building styles being intended to speak but even as late as the nineteenth century there were intense debates on the topic. We cannot easily change the buildings in which we worship but we can listen to their language, and let their own distinctive voice enrich our experience.    
Lecture #2 — Music and hymnody in Christian worship
Despite continued assertions that music is of divine origin, Christianity has displayed a long history of suspicion in the context of worship of not just particular musical styles but even of music itself. Fortunately, the more extreme Reformation position is no longer current but the decision of Pope John Paul II to ban secular concerts in Rome’s churches demonstrates the issue is still a live one. What exactly is sacred music? In what forms of music can God be heard? Hymns are now universal but the transition from psalm singing has still much to teach us. They encouraged earlier hymn writers to a richness of imagery that can sometimes still shock, and which stands in marked contrast to the modern desire for caution and political correctness. How is effective language to be balanced against inappropriate comments? Then are tunes just a matter of what fits the words, or is not the music itself an indispensable part of the experience? 
Lecture #3 — Metaphor and drama in Christian preaching and liturgy
More liturgical experimentation has taken place in our own lives than in any previous period, and this has been accompanied (at least in the USA) with careful attention to homiletics. Yet the predominant model of what attending church is about remains a rather static teaching model, with little heed given to the liturgy’s dramatic potential. Yet drama first arose in ancient Greece out of a liturgical context, and several modern dramatic theorists have spoken of contemporary theatre as itself a form of liturgy. So what we can learn from secular drama about how liturgy should be performed, and what potential aims it might have? And how does this connect with preaching? Past writers have often spoken of the aim as being to allow us who are in the present to inhabit a past reality that is the gospel story. But for that to happen, imagination is required. So how might such an imagination be fostered through the sermon to make this an experiential reality?