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Don’t Leave Your Trumpet at the Door: A Guide to Theological Education at United Seminary

Don’t Leave Your Trumpet at the Door: A Guide to Theological Education at United Seminary
by Dr. Cindi Beth Johnson

When I talk to potential students I have the opportunity to share how the arts will have an impact on their educational experience. Students in the arts concentration have a direct conduit when it comes to the arts as they reflect, learn and integrate. But at United the arts will infuse your experience no matter what degree or concentration you choose. Here are some of the questions (and answers) that happen in a typical conversation.

What do you mean by the arts? At United we strive to engage all of the arts. Poetry, theatre, visual arts, fabric arts, music, dance, photography, film and more, all conduits for the holy and invite theological reflection.

Do I have to be an artist? Some people make their living as artists but everyone has the capacity to draw upon the creative power of the arts for personal expression, spiritual reflection and as a way of understanding the holy. We are all created in the image of a creating God.

Why did you name your center The Intersection? The name The Intersection speaks to what United literally is…a place in which we hold space for an intersection between theology and the arts. This space is for learners, teachers, seekers and students.

What do you hope students will learn about the arts? I hope that they will find ways to think outside of the box. I hope that the arts will help them to engage their imagination and become better leaders.

Do you have to make art? At United we think that an important part of learning is experiential. We encourage creativity and learning by doing but we also draw upon the arts in the classroom as a source of learning and critical thinking.

Do you emphasize the visual arts? All art forms are key but modality studies indicate that many people learn and remember primarily through visual modes. For that reason we value visual arts.

Anything else? The United Church of Christ has two important sayings as part of their polity. “God is still speaking,” and “There is yet more truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.” Artists are about this work each and every day. Revealing, critiquing and engaging religious texts in new ways. What we need are eyes to hear and ears to see.

Does religious art have to be explicit? Art can be religious, or provide a spiritual experience, even if it does not have religious subject matter. A poem by Mary Oliver or Billy Collins can speak to love or redemption in a way that is similar to scripture. We rely on the sacred role of the text but we do not limit the canon. Artists can be religious without drawing upon explicit subject matter.

What do your graduates do? They do lots of creative things! Some of them take their work with the arts and it becomes a hallmark of a successful ministry. Some apply their engagement with the arts to their work in social justice arenas. Some continue to do their art but with a different understanding because they look at their work through a lens that draws on deep spiritual questions.

Do you partner with the arts community? United has partnered with a number of groups and hopes to continue that practice. We are proud to have worked with Intermedia Arts, The Penumbra, Mia, The Guthrie and others.

What advice would you give an incoming student? The best advice I would give an incoming student is that you shouldn’t leave your trumpet at the door. Bring your art practice into the seminary with you. And if you don’t have an art practice give yourself permission to experiment and see if the muse is inviting you to try out painting, poetry or some other art form. Be open to the transformational experience of the arts.

What kind of classes do students take in the arts concentration? The required classes give you the opportunity to learn that theology is art and art is theology. Multiple art forms are engaged. A hallmark of the program is the arts practicum which focuses on experiential learning and working as a cohort to engage a spiritual question. Students in the MA also have the option of doing a work of art thesis which combines both creation and reflection.

What if I don’t take any classes in the arts concentration? The opportunity to draw on the arts is available in many of the regular courses and is not limited to courses where the primary focus is on the arts.

Can you share any examples? The students in the arts concentration, like all of our students, do amazing work. Pamela Wynn, a poet, has been published recently in The Christian Century and Sojourners. Anne Brink’s visual art has expanded its focus from social justice to expressions of interfaith art. Craig Wright is the executive producer for Greenleaf which is a production of OWN.

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Cindi Beth Johnson is the director of The Intersection: Wilson Yates Center for Theology & the Arts and Professor in the Practice of Theology and the Arts at United. She is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She earned her M.Div. from Luther Northwestern Seminary and her D. Min. from Luther Seminary. She serves as the board chair of the Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies (SARTS). Most recently, she was a Creative Community Leadership Fellow with Intermedia Arts in 2014. She has written many articles for the SARTS journal, ARTS, as well as contributing to Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community through the Arts (ed. Robin M. Jensen and Kimberly J. Vrudny); Arts, Theology and the Church: New Intersections (ed. Kimberly Vrudny and Wilson Yates); and Teaching for a Multifaith World (ed. Eleazar Fernandez). Cindi Beth believes that the arts are a vessel for imagination and the creative spirit

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