Learning How to Transpose: How the Arts Inform Christianity
One of the reasons for naming this blog Transpositions is that all of us are interested in creative transpositions between the arts and Christianity, exploring ways that the arts inform Christianity and vice versa. Although this type of transposition has grown more popular in recent years, there remains a shortage of reflection about how these transpositions actually work. What are the methods for putting the arts in conversation with Christian thought and practice? How do we describe the relationship between the arts and Christianity in the context of interdisciplinary studies?
One relationship we should discount right away is illustration. If we are going to take the conversation between the arts and Christianity seriously, we have to move beyond thinking about the arts as mere illustrative tools for theological reality. Even though Christians are really good at “finding God at the movies” and other methods of mining the arts for truth, I believe that the arts have more to offer than this.
Another option is to treat the arts as metaphors for Christianity. Since a metaphor is speaking of something in the terms of something else, this means speaking about Christianity in the terms of art. Since metaphors are linguistic devices, however, this only gets us so far. For example, “Christian living is improvisation” may be a helpful metaphor, but improvisation as an embodied practice provides a lot more than a different way of speaking about Christianity.
What about analogy? Generally speaking, an analogy is often used to describe the relationship between two things that have a greater similarity than a metaphor. For example, saying ‘God is good’ is an analogy because even though God is not exactly ‘good’ as we understand it, describing him that way is not too strange. But saying ‘God is a playwright’ surprises us because ‘playwright’ is different enough from ‘God’ to make it a metaphor. So, the arts may inform Christianity as analogies at times, but it still misses the mark.
Identifying the arts as models for Christianity, however, has much more promise. In contrast to a metaphor, a model is an object or state of affairs rather than a linguistic devices. For example, I might say that building a house is a model for nurturing Christian community, because I am referring to the entire set of activities involved in building a house. Consequently, models are more conceptual and holistic, and can be unpacked using lots of metaphors. If theatrical improvisation is a model for Christian living, it means that all the concepts and practices associated with theatrical improvisation provide a new way of thinking about and practicing Christianity. When I describe this model, I use many different metaphors (God is a director, the church is an improv troupe, the world is a stage, etc.), but improvisation remains a comprehensive model for Christian living. And if this model would become the dominant way of talking about Christianity in certain circles, it would be appropriate to call this model a paradigm.
In sum, I am suggesting that the arts inform Christianity by providing new, creative models with the potential to transform Christian thought and practice, maybe even becoming paradigms. Of course, it is incredibly important to remember that the arts are valuable on their own terms. The arts do not need to be transposed into Christian thought and practice in order to be appreciated. But when we appreciate the arts for what they are, we realize that Christianity has much to learn from paying close attention to the arts. Having done so, the arts can provide models that invigorate our imaginations, generate new insights, and motivate more fitting ways of living. I am still learning how to transpose, so I would appreciate your thoughts on any of this and your perspectives on how the arts inform Christianity.