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ART & SPIRITUALITY

Iconography

Celtic Art & Spirituality

Many of us live in cultural contexts where mind and body, heaven and earth, sacred and secular, and religion and art are perceived as being split off from one another. Particularly for those whose ancestry can be traced back to the British Isles, the Celtic Christian tradition offers a path to a premodern cosmology that is much closer to that of the early churches, 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 spiritual traditions and early desert monasticism, this presentation will open up new pathways for understanding the role of the arts, embodiment, and nature within Christian spirituality.  

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Religious Art & Iconography

Within the context of American religion, our European-infused, post-Reformation cultural lenses still often insist that the physical, material world has little (if any) real religious or spiritual significance. To suggest otherwise has become for many people either idolatrous (the fundamentalist perspective) or absurd (the materialist perspective). Within secular contexts, "art" is often presented as being merely for entertainment which is achieved through detached enjoyment, while "religious" art is understood as being useful only as a tool for instruction, or as liturgical decor. This "Cartesian" orientation towards the material world makes it difficult for us to consciously reflect on the inherent connection between our aesthetic experiences and our spiritual lives, impacting not only our relationship to art, but our relationship to "nature" and even to our own bodies. In this presentation, we will look at some of the key differences between modern Western concepts of "art" and Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) iconography, in order to gain new "eyes to see" both the meaning and function of iconography, and of 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 us into deeper embodiment through participatory relationship and an invitation to redirect our imaginative faculties beyond our 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 for what it is, embracing a concept that psychologists and artists call "flow." Christians have traditionally interpreted this as the work of discernment - learning to listen for and trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. By stepping into the coordinated play of improvisational exercises, we can learn new ways of practicing our faith that hone those 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 on 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 my academic conference lecture on artistic vocation in the context of theology and the church.

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For Art's Sake: The Ethics of Art

Is there such a thing as "bad art"? Are our aesthetic preferences and tastes merely subjective, or do they have a deeper connection to our values and our sense of truth and justice? Picasso once commented that artists use lies to tell the truth, and many thinkers throughout history have noted the important prophetic role that artists have played in speaking truth to power. The arts "speak" to us on a visceral level that goes beyond didactic language and reasoning, appealing directly to our bodies, our emotions, and our imaginative capacities. But for those very same reasons, art and music can be used in emotionally manipulative ways by those in power - for political propaganda, branding and advertising, and religious indoctrination. This course/lecture explores some of the ethical issues surrounding art by looking at the relationship between beauty, truth, and goodness in relation to modern Western notions of "art for art's sake." We will address factors relating to social class, commercialism, cultural appropriation, and think through case studies that illuminate some of the deeper issues underlying the age-old conflict between art 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 Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda? Are the tales of witchcraft and wizardry in Harry Potter really a "doorway to the occult"? Christian engagement with popular culture has often been characterized by either avoidance or dismissal, usually in favor of whatever is considered "high culture." This lecture/course will introduce a variety of tools for evaluating the deeper themes found in the stories and mediums of pop culture. We will address issues like how to identify theological themes in music or film that may not have been intended by the writer or director, and learning how to responsibly interpret both religious and secular "texts" through a more culturally-aware lens. Participants will hone their ability to interpret the meanings and messages of the stories they consume in ways that will deepen their social, theological, and spiritual thinking. 

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

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Professional Background

I received my B.A. in Communication Studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where I studied rhetorical and cultural analysis, social psychology, semantics, and linguistic anthropology. My graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary focused theological aesthetics and the inherent relationship between art, religion, and spirituality. My master's thesis offered a postmodern and postcolonial analysis of how Western churches have come to define "sacred music" and art.  I learned iconography from Romanian Orthodox priest and professor Dr. John A. McGuckin and his wife Eileen McGuckin, who is a renowned iconographer in the Eastern Orthodox church. In addition to my music career, I've worked as an artist in many different mediums including graphic design, photography, theatre, and film. I enjoy painting, crafting, calligraphy, and cosplay, and consider myself a die-hard fan of Star Wars, DC, Marvel, Tolkien, Narnia, Harry Potter, She-Ra, and many other cartoons from the 1980s. Click here to read my published chapter on theology in relation to Thanos and the MCU's Infinity Saga

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