Friday, 7 August 2020  
  HOMILETICS INTERVIEW: Catherine Kapikian and Laura Wyke  

Preaching and the Arts

The day after she graduated from Wesley in 1979 with a Master's degree in Theological Studies, Catherine Kapikian "marched into the dean's office" and proposed the establishment of an artist-in-residence at the seminary. J. Phillip Wogaman, then dean, and President Jack Knight responded to her thesis that without the arts, "theological education was truncated," by assigning a modest space under the chapel as a studio. They also appointed her to teach a two-credit course in the visual arts. And it was then, says Catherine, "that I was surprised to realize that I had a ministry in the arts on my hands." More than 20 years later, Catherine is still at Wesley, now as the director of the Henry Luce III Center for Arts and Religion.

Laura Wyke holds a bachelor of arts with a double major in Religion and Theatre from Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia. She is currently the Executive Administrator of The Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary where she is also pursuing a Master of Divinity degree. Laura serves as Pastoral Intern at Bethesda United Methodist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, along with Rev. Ron Foster, pastor of the church.

Kapikian was on sabbatical last spring when we caught up with her, and deeming it dangerous to appear on campus and risk getting bogged down with questions about projects and the like, we met off campus in the apartment of Laura Wyke. Then, around a pot of coffee, we started out with a most fundamental question.

HOMILETICS: So what does art have to do with religion? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?

KAPIKIAN: The holy or the numinous indwells in the material place of significant art. It is a vehicle for ushering in the sense of the holy, or the divine. It is that which is spiritual, however one attempts to define that.

HOMILETICS: So art helps to access what is sacred.

KAPIKIAN: Yes, it does. It shuttles you to a different place than where you've been by ushering in some sense of the Transcendent - like when I listen to the National Symphony or go to the theater. Once I walked into a small gallery in Holland, and there was a tiny painting by Rembrandt. It was late in the day and the light was falling across the floor in a certain way. It was a painting of an elderly man bent over by himself at a table with his head in his hands. It gripped me in such a way, that it reduced me to my knees. I don't know exactly how to express what that process is. But when you're in the presence of the material reality of art, you are lifted, transported, shuttled, disclosed - and often what is disclosed is that which has to do with the holy and the sacred.

WYKE: There are things in the liturgical experience of the church that cannot convey the type of emotion and feeling, the inner sense of spirituality that art does, whether in visual, theatrical or musical form. There is something that goes deeper there in those arts than does our common liturgy, as important as liturgy is. Too often, our liturgy is barren if not enhanced by the arts, thus allowing us to go much deeper into theology, just by simple images, or plays.

HOMILETICS: Liturgy itself emerged, did it not, as an attempt to "dramatize" if you will, the salvation history of God's people. Certainly the Eucharist - the elevation of the Host - for example, is a visual restatement of the theology that is central to Christianity.

KAPIKIAN: Sometimes I think the words themselves get in the way of going deeper with God. But certainly, the church, from its very conception used the visual to convey the spiritual, even something as basic as the drawings on the walls of the catacombs. To me, it has to do with the notion that you come to know God most abundantly through the use of all your senses, and that any human activity and endeavor ought to embrace the full use of one's brain. But that aside, in the West, through the medieval period and Renaissance, except for the Iconoclastic Movement, the visual arts were a fundamental part of the liturgy, and it wasn't until the Reformation that the centrality of that way of knowing God shifted to the spoken word, and to the truncation of the sacramental. The liturgical renewal that is going on now suggests that it has taken 500 years to recover from the Reformation, and perhaps 150 years from now, we'll look back and say that it was at the end of the 20th century that the Reformation finally drew to a close.

HOMILETICS: Is it a right brain/left brain thing?

WYKE: I think it might be, but I also think there is a common thread that people share. I've noticed this by experimenting in my own congregation with different types of art in the past year. There is a common thread that excites everyone's inner being when they are in a church if the presence of art is used, as Cathy said, as a means to transport them from their everyday life into a totally different place, a spiritual place.

HOMILETICS: So what has triggered this renewed interest in liturgy and the arts?

KAPIKIAN: Probably the fact that we are such a visual culture now, the place of the image, what we know about how people learn.

HOMILETICS: If art is a way to access the sacred, it would seem that in such a secular culture, one would use all means possibly to uncover the sacred.

KAPIKIAN: There's something else going on too. No one today in their right mind in the field of the arts would attempt in a public formum to stand up and define what art is. It's beyond definition today. In fact, you can dig a hole in the ground and call it art, if you want.

HOMILETICS: That's the only art I could create!

KAPIKIAN: I seriously doubt that. So artists are not tethered anymore to a notion that art is evolved out of a tradition of skill or is anchored to aesthetic principles anymore. In our vastly secular culture, artists don't understand doctrine, and a massive number of artists wouldn't have anything to do with the church because the doctrine gets in the way. Yet in our experience here at Wesley as soon as you plunk artists into an environment where the creative process for its own sake is valued and seems to be connected to a deeply spiritual process - which all artists know intuitively - they suddenly flock toward the religious dimension of reality. You'd be surprised at the number of artists who come here and turn around and start seeking theological literacy. They start going to classes.

HOMILETICS: Is that the same thing that would happen in the parish?

KAPIKIAN: Absolutely. It's the same thing. We have artists now seeking degrees, and a couple are going on for Ph.D.s in liturgy. All these artists are coming to theology via the back door. There's such a natural alliance between the arts, the artists who create art and those who are deeply rooted in theological traditions. So here we are in a radically secular culture where God might as well be dead, where there is no definition of art possible, and you have a place like this [Wesley] where the two are coming together and the natural alliances and correspondences are so fundamental.

HOMILETICS: We have artists that are becoming theologically literate. So what do we need to do with the pastors/ theologians out there? Get them a coloring book?

KAPIKIAN: We must make them literate in terms of the multiple languages through which the arts are expressed. I know for a fact here, that - as unselfconscious as we are about the arts here - future pastors come here, and they walk past our studios and their body language and posture are a dead giveaway. They tighten up, put their heads down. They don't dare look in there; it's just too sensuous a place.

HOMILETICS: Maybe they're afraid they're going to see a crucifix inverted in a jar of urine.

KAPIKIAN: Maybe. The point is that they need to be educated in the nonverbal languages of the arts. They don't have a clue as to line, shape, color, value and texture. You know what: It's as alien as Greek and Hebrew to them.

HOMILETICS: And is Wesley teaching this to future pastors?

KAPIKIAN: Of course. This is one of the fundamental principles in any of our classes.

HOMILETICS: Is there an actual degree you can get in Arts and Religion?

WYKE: We have three degrees here: Master of Arts, Master of Theological Studies and Master of Divinity. In the M.Div. program you can take 20 of your 90 hours in the arts to get your degree with an arts emphasis, but all students are required to take at least one art class.

HOMILETICS: Are any other seminaries in the country doing this?

KAPIKIAN: I'm not sure, but no seminary that I am aware of has a studio right smack in the center of the institution. This is the heart of what goes on here. It was about 10 years after the studio had been established that we instituted the gallery, because at that point the community had enough exposure to the language, that they could then meet the product of the process. They could understand the painting, and the sculpture and fibers, and so on.

HOMILETICS: How do the students respond to the art requirements?

KAPIKIAN: It's like a bell-shaped curve. I ask all students in my classes to introduce themselves and to share why they are in here. One or two will meekly say, "Well, I don't really want to be here, but I have to be here." Or, "I can't draw, and I don't think you can teach me how to draw." Of course, you can teach anyone how to draw if you teach them how to see.

WYKE: You'll have students who write a reflection paper at the end of the term and describe how they have gone into an art class with no experience, and hated it, wanted nothing to do with the arts. They were in seminary to learn how to be a pastor. But they came full circle in one semester, and totally believed in the power of the art that they explored themselves. They also could see the power that art could bring to a congregation, and how congregations would love and benefit from art.

KAPIKIAN: One paper in particular was interesting. This person came from a rural part of the state, and he showed up for orientation, and the first thing he went to was a chapel service where something artistic was happening. He was so inflamed and angry that he started to turn around and go home. But he came full circle. It is so typical.

HOMILETICS: It is. Probably 95 percent of pastors out there today have not had any kind of training like this, no exposure to the notion that art can unleash the divine, pastors who are stuck in linear, prepositional forms of speaking the sacred language. So what can we do for those pastors? I know that Wesley offers sabbaticals.

WYKE: We do have such sabbaticals. For a number of years, we hand-picked people to come in to do some residence work, but we didn't really have the staff to accommodate everyone. But now we are actively seeking people who are interested in enhancing their skills.

KAPIKIAN: At the seminary level, all seminaries, for the health of the church, should have a program in the arts. Second, churches across the country should have artists-in-residence. There are so many classrooms in most churches that are empty throughout the week. Give one of these classrooms to an artist-in-residence. Third, seminaries contiguous to churches can move outside their denomination and have an interesting relationship with artists.

HOMILETICS: A church that is active in using the arts - what does this church look like? Does it paintings hanging on the walls in the narthex?

KAPIKIAN: First of all, there is a fundamental principle here that must be looked at - that has to be understood: the difference between process and product. When the church thinks of art, it thinks only of the product. Like the iceberg: The product is that which is above the water. The process is the 70 percent that is below the water that is never seen. If the church would embrace the arts at the process level, then we'd be halfway home. So no, it's not about hanging images in the hallways, or designating a small area in the church as a gallery, although that is something that can be done later. It is more important to get at an understanding of process and begin to integrate the arts at that level. The other aspect is the educational process that must companion any kind of ushering in of the arts into the local church. One of the best ways - I can't stand committees -

WYKE: Good thing you're not Methodist -[laughter]

KAPIKIAN: Of course, politics reign in the church as they do anywhere else. But it's a good idea to have a small cadre of people, five or six who love the arts, and who become a little committee on behalf of the arts. The church legitimizes the committee as a recognized committee, and the members begin with a bibliography and read books to help discuss fundamental questions like the first one you asked me today: What does art have to do with religion? Does an artist have to be Christian to produce art for the church? Is art essential or is it like stripes on a pair of stockings or frosting on a cake? Is there such a thing as Christian art? Is there such a thing as sacred, liturgical, religious art? And then this little group of people becomes a bridge between the clergy and the congregation. They're aware that they have an educational function. Then, after drawing up a master plan, they begin to integrate arts into the life of the church at the process level as well as at the product level. You connect the process level with worship, education, or outreach. That's altogether different from connecting it up with a product.

HOMILETICS: Art can transform an average sermon into a more powerful sermon. I'm thinking of preachers who have difficulty with oral communication, who can, in using more than one medium to communicate the gospel, be much more effective.

KAPIKIAN: That's exactly right. What would happen if once in each liturgical season, the children's artwork, which is so wonderfully expressive because it's not edited, was allowed to invade the sanctuary, even the most formal kind of sanctuary? What if it was put into the bulletin, the newsletter, placed on the altar or lectern? If the pastor had the slightest understanding of the artistic vocabulary, he or she could talk about the way this little girl did this, and this little boy did that as a disclosure of a certain kind of inherent truth in that piece of Scripture. At the same time, have some member of the staff, or the committee, or the resident artist, do a little research into what great artists have done in the past on the same thing. Compare little Roger's work to Raphael, for example.

HOMILETICS: There is no other place in our culture except the church, where we go expecting to simply get a unilateral form of communication, i.e., someone behind a box speaking, and an audience out there receiving. Go into a school, college or university, and you expect multimedia; go to the mall and you expect visual displays, go downtown to the city center and you expect to see artwork, sidewalk performers and the like. Only at church is it common - and too often accepted - that the medium will be simply the spoken word with little or no interaction or participation.

KAPIKIAN: I have challenged the leadership of the church here in Washington, D.C., to study the number of people who go to the concert halls and the galleries and the museums on Sunday and Saturday nights for a transcendent experience in those high-powered places and spaces as opposed to those who go to the church for their religious fix.

HOMILETICS: Any favorite works of art that really speak to you, or that you like to use sermonically?

WYKE: I use so much. I would encourage pastors not to impose what they think is happening in a certain piece of art on the congregation. We should use it, but allow it to be an open thing to the community. What you see is not what others may see. So let the art speak. No need to say: "This is what this means." No need to give the moral of the story. The art is powerful enough.

Another thing that is important is to involve the community in the production of the art. Cathy designs large pieces of art and then gets the church community to put them together.

KAPIKIAN: I call that participatory aesthetics. These are very large - a couple hundred square feet - chancel works in churches around the country. They become the work of the people, and the craft is magnificent because there is such pride in the work. In a Presbyterian church in Cincinnati I am working with, we're working on a chancel tapestry, and the work is now being needle-pointed. It's abstract, and we're at the point now where the children are coming in and putting in stitches under supervision. Some of the abstract imagery is being discussed. The church is expanding in terms of people outside the church hearing about the project and wanting to become involved.

I would venture that if you took any church in this country in a half mile radius, you would find artists. Some churches have a town meeting, and they let the community know that this is a welcoming place for artists and that there is going to be a studio there, and a rotating gallery, and that we're inviting local artists in the community to contribute. There's going to be a Sunday morning conversation between the pastor and the artist in the pulpit.

The point is that the religious community and the artistic community must be in dialogue and attempting something together.

HOMILETICS: Doesn't the natural world around us point us to the creative power of God?

KAPIKIAN: We are all given as a part of our genetic endowment the capacity to respond creatively. That's what it means to be in the imago dei.

HOMILETICS: God is depicted as a sculptor, fashioning us out of clay. In that sense, I am a work of art.

KAPIKIAN: Exactly.

HOMILETICS: I've been told that, that I'm a "piece of work."

KAPIKIAN: For several years, we had a sign on our studio door that said: "An artist is not a special kind of person; every person is a special kind of artist." I really believe that.




Catherine Kapikian

Laura Wyke

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