A popular magazine called the Sun professes to discuss the triumvirate of verboten topics for polite small talk: religion, sex, and politics. This essay is about a venture in one college town that took on two of the three, and to make matters even more risky, substituted art for sex. The resulting ruckus for us, as a professor of art history at Appalachian State University and a pastor of a tall steeple church in this mountain town, is an experience in pedagogy that deserves telling. Our own learning was painful. But is there any other kind of learning that matters?

Creative Friendship

We dreamed up an art show we called Strange Light, Unexpected Friends in the fall of 2011. Professor Nave wanted to make public and practical the gleanings from her First Year Seminar, “Art, Religion, and Society.” The course had used case studies to ask questions about how these three entities relate and what particular challenges and opportunities are created by their intersection. The students looked at art that was used as political propaganda, activism, a devotional method, and as a reflection of cultural ideas.

Nave also wanted to address several problems she had observed, both within her classroom and in the world outside academia. She noted that her students did not find art history compelling—that they could not see its relevance to everyday life. Moreover, her students felt their voices were not taken seriously in the community. With these issues in mind, Nave wanted to provide a space for a kind of scholarship of engagement in which a dialogue could be established between the university and the community, particularly in relation to the intersection of art and religion. She also wanted to address the idea that contemporary art and modern religion do not quite know what to do with each other, and collaboration with a local congregation offered the perfect opportunity to address all of these issues.

Pastor Byassee’s role in the art show was that of a pedagogue, though of a different sort than Nave. He was a new pastor at a church that was once located downtown, in walking distance from the university, but a move slightly out of town a decade ago increased the psychological distance from the school immeasurably. Byassee wanted to know if that distance could be bridged. His church had been a host for all sorts of expressions of art: the organ and traditional worship space of a tall steeple church having naturally made it a venue for music of a high-culture sort. Its architecture—mountainous, like the Appalachians all around it—naturally makes it a home for those interested in church buildings and holy space. But visual art was a very different story, and Byassee hoped that playing host to an art show, particularly in collaboration with a local university, might suggest a more organic view of art, with all creatures as creators in response to God’s creative work among us.

One fruit of our collaboration has been what we call a “creative friendship.” Neither of us is an artist in any formal sense. But in a deeper sense we are—one trying to lure students into love of art, to see and appreciate its impact for good on the world, and the other trying to woo parishioners into love of God so the church could be a counterculture for the common good. When we discovered a common desire for art that tells the truth and creates new relationships, we knew we had to collaborate beyond conversation.

The more substantial fruit of this creative friendship was an experiential learning process. Strange Light, Unexpected Friends was a collaborative art show experiment that emerged between students at Appalachian State and members of the greater community of Boone, North Carolina. The theme of the show comes from the Christian feast of Epiphany, in which unexpected guests—three followers of another religion—bring their gifts to the Christ child. The church has traditionally seen there a glimpse of the opening of God’s covenant people to include Gentiles, but we took that opening a step farther and included art made by genuine outsiders. The collaboration created a safe physical and metaphysical space for students and community members to seek understanding of ideas and each other in a dialogue of shared exploration and creative works. The art show was referenced in Byassee’s sermons and teaching during the month of the show; Nave gave two academic talks to the public on art interpretation; and the student artists came for a reception to meet the community.

The collaboration between the students and the community, particularly the church community that hosted the art show, triggered some of the same issues as the course material of Nave’s class, but now students were integrating their new knowledge of art history with their current thinking. This was a step outside the classroom and a step into a dangerous place for public education: religion. Students had to determine how they would approach the theme of the show—Strange Light, Unexpected Friends—and whether they would merely try to illustrate a scene related to Epiphany or whether they would interpret the idea in a much broader sense. They also had to navigate public perception and differing modes of interpretation, gauge their own level of risk in their use of artistic license, and determine how they would address matters that held a prized place in the confessional life of a religious community, the very community that would host their work. The students’ understanding of art history and their critical thinking skills served them well in preparing for the show. From their classroom discussions, they were adept at handling sensitive communications between various disparate groups, juggling abstract concepts in an area where great emotional attachment can be detrimental to open dialogue on both sides.

On the night of the artists’ reception, two students performed original songs that they had written and composed for the project. The student artists also had a chance to get to know the community members who had been viewing their work in the sanctuary during the previous month. During this time, several students talked about their work and shared what the project meant for them, how it made them see the intersection of art and religion as relevant to their lives. Members of the community also asked questions of the students, both as a group and as individuals. In fact, a common theme of these discussions was the nature of community within the class, within the church, and in the intersection of these often separated spheres.

The students were aware that they were guests in a religious house. One church member stood, thanked them for their work, and invited them to the church or another house of worship. No students, to our knowledge, took that church member up on the offer. This encounter demonstrates that there is no neutral place from which to explore art and faith. There were risks in hosting this show and reception on religion’s home turf. Both the students and the church made an offer—the former of their work, the latter of future worship. As with any gesture of hospitality, an offer can be politely refused. Yet, as the church members considered later, that night could have been students’ first experience in a church or perhaps their first experience with the church as a welcoming, inviting place. The church’s hope is that any gesture of hospitality is not wasted.

The art show and night of dialogue with the community demonstrated how integrated learning mattered to students, not just in the academy but in a real life situation as a people in the wider world. It also demonstrated how the community contributed to the process and learned from this scholarship of engagement. In effect, the artists’ reception was the culminating event in which the participating students found out that their ideas do matter in the community and that they have a place and a voice in the world outside the academic institution.

Art in the Dumpster and in the Sanctuary

Methodists in Boone are not the first Christians to struggle with visual arts. The Reformed tradition has a history of smashing images that they believed defied the second commandment and its prohibition of the veneration of graven images. Boone United Methodist Church, like many of its Protestant forebears, still has traces of this iconoclasm. Its stained glass windows feature abstract designs, not saints, and the main sanctuary window portrays the Holy Spirit as a dove rather than the man Jesus. Its cross is simple, suspended in midair in the sanctuary, no sign of a body. If the fatal end of Catholicism is idolatry, the fatal end of Protestantism is Gnosticism—dismissal of the body—and while we’re not there, our temptations kick that way. The framed artworks you might see in the church halls are of a silk-haired, golden-faced Jesus. It is as though the Reformers cut this and most other Protestant congregations off from the great tradition of church art, and the church was left with schmaltz.

A student in the art show named Alex Wolf was moved by a Christian Boltanski piece at the Jewish Museum in New York that depicted the faces of unnamed Holocaust victims. After seeing Boltanski’s work, Wolf was inspired to photograph interesting faces in New York, arrange them on a board, and then surround those images with light bulbs (see Image 1). The faces she chose were not stereotypical church faces: they were tattooed, pierced, smoking. Because Wolf’s work was the first to arrive at the church, Byassee left it in the hallway outside his new office. When additional art pieces arrived, he needed more storage space, and so he began packing the art into his office. Only then did he realize that Alex’s work was gone. Apparently, he learned, parishioners at his church assumed that items left in the hallway were trash. Still, the shuttling of the art from the church into the dumpster prompted an important, troublesome question: If the image had been a gauzy one of a cherub, a cheap reproduction of a Renaissance master, or a felt cutout of Jesus, would it have ever hit the dumpster?

Strange Light, Unexpected Friends was a complex experience for both the church as host and the students as guests. The show recasts the Christian epiphany story of a “strange light” that appears in the skies above Bethlehem to signal the birth of the baby Jesus. In that story, the light draws many people outside the comfort of their everyday familiarities, from local fields and faraway lands, together for a common purpose. The light creates “unexpected friends.” Truly, it is the story of this early cross-cultural exchange of Persian, possibly Zoroastrian, “wise” men who came to pay homage to a poor Jewish baby in a strange occupied country that intrigued us in the first place.

The show included art depicting a meditating Buddhist with chakras made visible (see Image 2), a Muslim woman embraced by many hands (see Image 3), and the yin and yang symbols from Taoist and Confucian thought (see Image 4), as well as more explicitly Christian works, such as a star and shepherd (see Image 5). For the church, this was a chance to learn what a group of eighteen-year-olds thought about religion. And it was also a place where those with no interest in the church could do their best to summon up a true word, a beautiful image, a good song, and offer it to others.

Byassee wanted to see his church’s participation in the visual arts revived, restored, given flesh, and made new, but there was difficulty. Three families in the church objected to the art show. They believed works of art depicting Eastern religious images had no place in a Christian sanctuary. One of these families left the church, and the other two now attend a different service than the one preached by Byassee. Three families may not seem like many in a congregation of nearly 1,400 people, but these three were deeply involved, attending weekly and, more dangerously for the church, giving money faithfully. One family member told how her child said, “Mom, this just doesn’t seem right” to have the yin and yang or an image of a meditating Buddhist. Another family member said, “I just don’t feel like a Methodist anymore.”

Byassee tried to explain and contextualize. A pastor should of course have no objection to a church member’s desire to worship Jesus alone, he said, but the reason the church hosted this show was to make clear our appreciation for goodness, truth, and beauty. The fact that artists have approached this theme from other religious angles is not a threat to a person’s worship of Jesus; it is just the artist’s attempt to approximate beauty. Artists, Byassee suggested, can only create by God’s grace, acknowledged or not. So, paradoxically, the works using non-Christian religious images are not a step away from Jesus but a step into him. In each case, however, this argument was unsuccessful.

Interestingly, Professor Nave noted that the artists who used Eastern images were mostly from staunchly Christian homes, the predominant sort of home here in Appalachia. In reaching for such images they may have been reacting against the conservatism they perceived in their family churches, a conservatism that would not let them explore these images in the way that the university encouraged. Churches must come to grips with the fact that slapping away that hand as it reaches outside comfortable Christian imagery will make it difficult to extend a hand in friendship.

Art to Bridge the Great Divide

The church was not the only one to enter this dialogue with trepidation. The project pushed students to artistically engage with a religious theme. The students knew that throughout history the use of religious imagery has been known to cause explosive political problems and social and religious outrage. Conversely, there is also the danger of overly kitschy interpretations of religious themes. And so these students of a state university had to consider how to strike a balance in what could be a very sensitive subject or audience.

Nave also saw the idea of an open dialogue questioned directly in the academy. When she notified her department of the upcoming show, within an hour she received a question from a colleague about whether the show constituted a violation of the separation of church and state. Indeed, the uneasy relationship between academia and religion was tested more vigorously because the students attended a state university. But just as Nave had discussed with her students in classroom case studies, this is precisely what art is able to do in these situations—push the boundaries and ask whether there is room for discussion.

In the end, much like Byassee had to be concerned with the departure of tithing church members, Nave observed that money might play a powerful role in the willingness, or unwillingness of academics and artists to jump into religious themes. Given that Appalachian State University is publicly funded, Nave had to be careful not to move students into any religious activity. And it is the fear of this accusation, that a professor used his or her position to influence students in a particular religious direction, which usually keeps any attempt at bringing together these two entities for mutual understanding at bay. Therefore, most art historians are content to talk about the history of the powerful Catholic church and the recent religious uproars concerning contemporary art. With these things in mind, and hopeful that even an unsuccessful navigation would prove to be a learning experience, Nave moved ahead with her plan to offer a bridge over the gap between religion and education that has been perpetuated for so long by both sides. The voluntary, collaborative project took place after final grades were reported, and the approach was one of shared learning. Students offered their talent, their creative ideas, their art. The theme of the show was adapted from the Christian tradition, but no one told the students what or how to think about it. Nave’s course had given her students multiple avenues to approach the theme as well as the knowledge and tools to create their own approaches.

Can We Even Talk?

The academy and the church encompass two very different modes of thinking—one is critical, methodical, and very much dependent on a burden of proof. The other is based on a prophetic tradition that asks its adherents to move beyond or outside the academic system of thinking. They are two vastly different paradigms. But just because the ways and means are different doesn’t mean that these two ways of thinking should be segregated.

In fact, in this context, one must engage to understand. Just as one learns a foreign language immeasurably better when immersed in that foreign country, surrounded by native speakers, art historians know that one cannot fully understand every nuance of a work of art from digital images in a dark classroom. There is just nothing like strolling through the Sistine Chapel or walking around the fallen columns of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, no matter how many slides or diagrams or reconstructions one has seen. The same holds true for the academic when approaching this intersection of art and religion. One can dissect, analyze, theorize, and critique, but if one genuinely desires to understand, one must also engage.

This newly constructed dialogue, uneasy and treacherous as it is between the state university class and the local church, led to a better learning experience and improved understanding. In looking at just a few of the images from Strange Light, Unexpected Friends, we believe you will see that students have effectively engaged in all manner of thinking about what this theme means to them in abstract and concrete ways and through a variety of styles and media. And we believe that those students have something important, intuitive, and different to say and that we can all learn from their investigation. We also believe that the church community benefitted from this engagement, even if the learning proved difficult. By shining a light on the intersection of art and religion, however strange that may seem to do, we believe the university and the community may find a better understanding of each other and, through this new dialogue, become “unexpected friends.”

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