Preaching and the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.