The Art of Incorporating Theology

When an artist begins to feel the world falling apart, we do not expect them to paint the in same style we observed when they found life exciting and fulfilling. Motifs of crisis or despair will invade their work. Indeed, artists are often the coal canaries of society, sensing changes in the atmosphere before the rest of us.

If the artist, in the midst of crisis and change, produced work which did not change we would wonder about denial, about disconnection, about loss of insight. We might simply relegate them to the realm of bad art and cliché. In the art scene, this artist will be consigned to irrelevance; perhaps an object of pity, more likely an object of derision. We will be told they have “sold out,” or “gone commercial.”

The theological world has been falling apart and the rate of change is increasing. The crisis is not all bad. There is much which is exciting and hopeful. But there is no need for coal canaries to sense the change. We are more in need of deep water sailors who can keep us upright in the storm!

Despite the storm, the art of theology is often unchanged. We do and say the same things in church. The sermon may be deeply challenging of the status quo- but be followed by a 300 year old hymn which has not the least intimation of the big shift. The minister reads Gretta Vosper during the week, and then leads prayers to the KINGAFAP God of the TAWOGFAT Bible on Sundays. The people, hard-nosed and practical in the bank office on Friday, and skilled and down to earth as they build a pergola on Saturday, adore this disconnect on Sunday. Indeed they often complain if it is not present!

Let us unpack what is happening.

I first heard the acronym KINGAFAP used by the hymn writer Brian Wren. King, Almighty Father And Protector was a shorthand he used to refer to the clutch of metaphors used to imagine God in traditional worship. KINGAFAP is frequently hegemonic; other imaginings of God are not welcome.

Gretta Vosper uses the term TAWOGFAT as short hand for the pre critical and pre progressive understandings of scripture: The Authoritative Word Of God For All Time. (eg With or Without God, pp 103).

Vosper wonders if theological training causes some kind of disconnect between the left and right brain; a metaphorical severing of the corpus callosum. How is it that we give intellectual assent to the implications of the big shift, live according to it during the week, but continue to worship on Sunday as though nothing has happened? She even suggests the Liturgical Movement was a kind of distraction, even an excuse, which allowed the church to avoid dealing with the implications of its theological discoveries. (pp 107)

The church is an artist. There is good religion and bad religion, good art and bad art. Good art seeks to connect us with something other, and at least partially succeeds at this. Bad art has failed at this, or has a different agenda altogether, such as money, or avoidance of reality.

The church has become an artist whose work fails to reflect their insight. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in many cases, the art of church has been subverted to avoiding reality, not displaying and understanding it. Such an artist loses the respect of their peers. Pity will be the best assessment of them; irrelevance or derision are more likely. This is surely true of the church at present!

In popular imagination some artists are tortured individuals. This can be a consequence of seeking to put intellect and insight and emotion together, and is not restricted to the art world. It is hard work. It is much easier to sell out.

It is no easier to put intellect and emotion together in the living out of faith, than it is to paint well. Indeed, Sunday worship can be exquisitely beautiful, and liturgically well conceived, but fail when we leave the church building. The failure comes because the liturgy does not reflect the intellectual reality in which we live, neither the reality of how we think intellectually about God, nor the reality of how we live that out in our daily work. Instead of lifting us out of the prosaic and ordinary, and helping us reconnect with the profound nature of reality, liturgy sometimes invites us to become complicit in a denial of reality. Instead of re-connecting us with the profound, it burdens us with the untrue and the banal.

Sometimes people complain that worship has become entertainment. They have profoundly misunderstood the issue. Of course worship should entertain. If it does not seize us, capturing our attention, how can it help us reconnect with the profound? The real danger of worship is that it becomes amusing. Think about this word: a-muse. A-musement removes us from musing. It insulates us from the profound, making denial and avoidance of reality easier.

We see this very clearly in the church. People find worship boring. Faithful Christians find it a burden, even offensive. Ministers too often delight in a Sunday off for the wrong reasons, and don't go to church.

Back in the gallery, the failed artist's peers come to the first night of the exhibition. Polite comments, if the artist is fortunate, will be made about technical excellence, or clever execution, but most people will only be there for the wine and the socialising. If there is a good pub nearby, they will retire across the road as soon as is decently possible. It will be better over there because there will be no need to pretend. They may even use words heard too often in reference to Sunday worship, such as embarrassing, and excruciating.

The person who has avoided the challenge to paint all theirs insights about life into the one integrated canvas, will have avoided much short term pain. But the cost will eventually be higher. Irrelevance and derision are more corrosive of the spirit than the the pain of being real. We can only make empty art for so long. Eventually the human drive for authenticity, (or is it the insistence of reality upon authenticity?) will force itself upon us. Even if we block our ears to those who scorn us, and can rationalise empty pews and galleries, we will not be able to deny our own insights. This has happened in the church. Those who have eyes and a willingness to see beyond the habitual and the pretty, are profoundly discomforted and often deeply disillusioned.

If they are lucky, the liturgy is painful, even offensive, but at least they find some challenge in their theological thinking outside of worship. Or perhaps they are able to immerse themselves in the liturgy, forgetting the outside world for a while, and tuning out the annoyance of the sermon which threatens to tear up their canvas as it sharpens the blade of their denied intellect.

If they are unlucky, they will not be able to maintain this disconnect. The whole enterprise of church will become unbearable and they will likely move out to the pub across the road. Sadly, though the church may regard them as lost, they are the better artist, and perhaps even the better Christian, authentic, healthy and human.

If progressive Christianity is not to be destructive, and ultimately fail, it cannot stop at intellectual theology. The insights of progressive Christianity must be applied to the way we do worship, to the way we run meetings, and to the way we interact in the world. In my own experience, there have been two issues constantly affecting each other. It has been immensely intellectually challenging to come to grips with the theological implications of the big shift. It has also been wildly exciting! The pain that this journey causes seems to come from two areas. One comes from facing the personal implications of the new theological insights; what does this mean for me? Does God still exist... and is that even a sensible question?

The other issue is the difficulty of incorporating the intellectual insights into worship; into my life in the body of the church. Obvious questions arise; does it make sense to pray to a non interventionist God? But there are more subtle issues. “Incorporation” is a good word: it means bringing into the body. An integrated theology means bringing the intellectual insights into the body of the church. We cannot be an artist and refuse to paint, or draw, or knit what we see to be real and true. We cannot be a theologian or ultimately, a good Christian, if we do not bring what we see to be real and true into the body of the church.

I discover that I cannot continue to gain theological insight until I incorporate my theology into the church and its service and worship. I discover that this incorporation, which begins with the same pain as the intellectual quest, also yields the same excitement. It also enriches the intellectual endeavour, allowing more insights.

We are familiar with the concept of integrating our theology, and crafting it into some kind of consistent whole. For the Christian, this integration involves incorporation. Theology is not separate from the body of the church. Incorporation is the artist's greatest challenge. It allows our personal insight to be seen by others.



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