What A Theology Degree Looks Like

An hour ago I finished my time at Maynooth College by hopefully acing an exam on the Wisdom literature. It is a curiously anti-climactic feeling. I returned some books to the library. I went to the supermarket to buy food for dinner. I did another round of laundry and now I am having a cup of coffee before dispatching my massive pile of accumulated notes to the the recycling bin.

This is what a theology degree looks like:

What a theology degree looks like

The secrets of my success are:

    – Attend lectures.
    – Take notes.
    – Actually read the Bible (hence a little TNIV and not the massive NRSV Study Bible that always gets recommended).
    – Start essays when you get the titles.
    – Don’t get caught for time in exams.

The most valuable book over the last few years in terms of college courses has definitely been Walter Brueggemann’s guide to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Brueggemann is the most readable Biblical scholar I have ever encountered. His readings are simultaneously deep, challenging and devotional. The value of this book has been not just in its excellent introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures but in the bigger picture way that it represents the formation of the Canon as an imaginative act in the past that determines the shape of our theological imagination in the present. At undergraduate level, this gets you out of a lot of tight corners, especially when it comes to writing essays and contributing to tutorials.

What next?

Your Correspondent, Like a Quaker in a strip club.

On Christian Art

If I could live my life over again I’d train as an architect. I was convinced growing up that I was crap at art and so didn’t even consider that craft as a possibility. Ironically, I was very good at art but very crappy at writing. There is a lesson there. Teenagers know nothing. Especially about themselves. It is a cruel irony of the Fall that people so self obsessed remain so self-unaware. This is why you should be especially kind with teenagers and especially careful to direct them on paths that they can’t see yet.

Anyway, I think I have since learned how to compose a sentence. I still technically haven’t learned how to compose a drawing but I have reasonable confidence that I can come up with good visual ideas and carry them out without utter ineptitude.

I have been thinking about this because Wife-Unit, encouraging little floozy that she is, has been telling me recently to develop my artistic side. I suspect that inwardly she is disappointed that I can’t grow a cool hipster beard and so is planning on compensating by making me a visual artist, which has all kinds of credibility, even when packaged in my distinctively un-distinctive style I call “computer programmer chic”. Outwardly however, it must be said, she is just being her usual loving self, gently pushing me to explore new challenges, investigate new frontiers, push the envelope and do other things that are better quarantined inside a particularly bland multi-national corporation middle-manager’s vocabulary.

During the summer, the teenagers at my church, led ably as ever by Transfarmer, hosted an arts festival on the central square of my town. The theme of the festival was “Love Your Enemy” and it was an opportunity for folk in my church to consider that creatively. It was a good day, marred somewhat by a typical Irish summer consisting of just enough humidity to annoy you and not enough sunshine to power a calculator.

I took the verse from the Sermon on the Mount where we hear Jesus telling us to love our enemies and expressed it as a binary string. It looked like this:

Binary string of Matthew 5:44

Then using about 6000 copies of that string, I composed a mosaic that from a distance looked like this:

Osama- love your enemies

Hence I quite explicitly commented on the teachings of Jesus. This is who he means for us to love.

As I said though, I have been thinking about my art. And I have noticed something about it. I am a Christian artist.

I don’t mean that as the self evident statement it appears to be and I don’t mean that as a compliment to myself.

I can’t seem to make art without using words.

Christians are so addicted to the Word that we are unable to represent ourselves in art without welding the commentary to the creativity. There is a great irony in the fact that the one group of people who ought to be practiced in the nuanced art of relishing interpretation, bring a draconian refusal to allow any diversity of reaction to their creativity. The art can’t stand alone as a thing of beauty honed in craft by a disciplined mind. You have to get its message.

One of the most lovely things I have discovered on the internet in recent weeks has been a blog called Invisible Foreigner that is little more than a series of quotes from the reading of the blog curator. Its compelling stuff because they are reading such fascinating books. From there recently I read this quote from Ratzinger:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the *saints* the Church has produced and the *art* which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history … No, Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty — and truth — is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell

I took this as a caution against my proclaiming tendency in art. Ratzinger is not against apologetics. He wrote one of the great apologetic works of the 20th Century. What he is saying is that while apologetics can and should be beautiful, beauty cannot just become one more ingredient in the “finished product” of an apologetic, the thing we’re really interested in. Art becomes nothing more than a cleverly produced tract.

Thankfully God has provided me with a friend called Amanda Dillon who is a South African artist living in Dublin who understands these things. I met her after she gave a talk about street art around the world that was honestly one of the most soul-nourishing and brain-salivating things I have heard this year. Brains salivate, dontchyaknow. Souls need food, too. Among the many other beautiful pieces of non-text based, non-didactic, utterly subversive, doxology-inducing art she shared with me, this piece of graffiti done by an anonymous artist in Brighton sticks out:

Christ in Brighton

Christian art doesn’t exist. Art exists. Christians do it. When they do it well, it does many subsidiary jobs effortlessly. When it is done badly, it does only one job, evangelism, with little effect. Before I even learn how to draw a still life, I have to learn this.

Your Correspondent, Is in the middle of buying a baby her first wallet