Celtic Art & Spirituality

Most of us live in a culture where mind and body, heaven and earth, sacred and secular, and religion and art are perceived as being separate from one another. The Celtic spiritual tradition offers a cosmology and cultural ideology much closer to that of Jesus, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things and focusing on restoring right relationship between human beings, the natural world, and the spiritual world. Celtic wisdom invites us to experience the "ordinary" as being alive with the presence of God. By looking at ancient and medieval Celtic art, especially images from illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, and by examining the historical connection between Celtic cultural traditions and early desert monasticism, this presentation will open up new ways of understanding the role of the arts, embodiment, and nature in relation to Christian spirituality.  


Religious Art & Iconography

Our post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment cultural lenses tells us that the physical, material world has little, if any, religious or spiritual significance. To suggest otherwise has become for many people either idolatrous or absurd. This "Cartesian" lens makes it difficult for us to understand the relationship between our aesthetic and spiritual lives, preventing us from fully appreciating the connection between art and spirituality. "Secular" art is often presented as merely decorative or for entertainment only, while "religious" art is usually understood as being useful only for instruction. In this presentation, we will look at the difference between modern Western concepts of "art" and Eastern (Byzantine) iconography, gaining new "eyes to see" religious icons and visual art in general. We will discuss some of the controversies surrounding visual art in the history of the church, and look at how the orthodox practice of praying with icons invites participation and relationship, asking the viewer to deepen their emotional intelligence and direct their imaginative capacities to "see beyond" everyday sensory experience. 

Improvisation as a Way of Life

In his book Improvisation in Life and Art, jazz musician Stephen Nachmanovitch writes, "When people ask me how to improvise, only a little of what I can say is about music. The real story is about spontaneous expression, and it is therefore a spiritual and a psychological story, rather than a story about technique." Improvisation - whether in music, theatre, dance, comedy, or just in our everyday lives - requires a willingness to accept the present moment, and the ability to embrace a concept that artists call "flow." Christians have traditionally interpreted this as the work of learning to trust in the Holy Spirit. By practicing improvisation, we can learn new ways to practice faith through postures of acceptance and trust. Through easy improv games and techniques drawn from a number of artistic disciplines, this playful and fun course helps participants learn how to trust in the "flow" and say "yes, and" to the movement of the Spirit in their lives.

Note: This course can be taught as a half-day workshop or a 5-week class. 

The Artist's Way: Artistic Vocation

This 12- to 15-week class will address the subject of artistic "calling" and the arts as a spiritual practice, providing tools and resources to guide participants through a process of discernment and growth through artistic expression. The course will draw wisdom and exercises from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, along with a number of other texts on the creative process including Janice Elseheimer's The Creative Call, Anne Lammott's Bird By Bird, Twyla Tharpe's The Creative Habit, and Stephen Nachmanovich's The Art of Is. We will look at the some of the cultural and religious messages that hinder people from pursuing an artistic vocation, as well as the relationship between one's vocation and one's "career," working to re-frame these issues in more positive and life-sustaining ways. 

Note: This topic can be adjusted based on whether it is being taught in a religious, non-religious, or ecumenical setting. Click here to read Kristen's academic conference lecture on the theology of artistic vocation.


For Art's Sake: The Ethics of Art

What is "bad art"? Are our preferences and tastes merely subjective, or do they have a deeper connection to our values and our sense of justice and truth? Picasso once commented that artists use lies to tell the truth, and many thinkers throughout history have observed the important prophetic role of the arts in exposing the delusions of a culture. Art can "speak" to us on a level beyond didactic language and reason, by appealing more directly to our bodies, our emotions, and our imaginative capacities. But art and music can also be used in emotionally manipulative ways by those in power - for political propaganda, commercial advertising, and religious indoctrination. This course/lecture examines some of the ethical questions surrounding art by looking at the relationship between beauty, truth, and goodness, especially in relation to the notion of "art for art's sake." We will address factors relating to social class, commercialism, and cultural appropriation, and think through case studies that will illuminate some of the deeper issues underlying the age-old conflict between the arts, politics, and religion. 

Note: This topic can be offered as a lecture or taught as a 5- to 12-week class. 

Popular Culture & Theology

What does Star Wars have anything to do with theology? How about Marvel or DC comics, or video game sagas like The Legend of Zelda? Are the tales of witchcraft and wizardry in Harry Potter a "doorway to the occult"? Christian engagement with popular culture has typically been characterized by either avoidance or dismissal, often in favor of what is considered "high culture." This lecture/course introduces a variety of tools for evaluating deeper themes in various mediums of pop culture, and will explore questions like how can we responsibly identify theological themes in film and music when they were not necessarily intended by the writer or director? Participants will learn how to engage both religious and secular cultural "texts" with a more critical eye, and hone their ability to interpret the meanings of the cultural messages and stories they consume in ways that will deepen their social, theological, and philosophical thinking. 

Note: This topic can be offered as a lecture or taught as a 5- to 12-week class. 


Professional Background

Kristen received her B.A. in Communication Studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she studied semantics, textual interpretation, rhetorical analysis, and cultural criticism. She studied iconography at Union Theological Seminary with Romanian Orthodox priest and professor Dr. John A. McGuckin, and his wife Eileen McGuckin, a renowned iconographer. In addition to Kristen's music career, she has worked as an artist in many different mediums including graphic design, photography, theatre, and film. She enjoys painting, crafting, and cosplay, and is a fan of Star Wars, DC, Marvel, Tolkien, Narnia, Harry Potter, She-Ra, and most cartoons from the 1980s. Click here to read Kristen's published writing on theology and the Marvel film universe.