[This is the last in a series of guest blogs from Abby Thornton, who’s been attending the “Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity” conference in Washington, D.C. this week.]
I’m not really an art person. Well, I’m trying to be – and am growing in this area of my faith as I come more and more to consider art and faith as closely linked (but that’s another blog altogether!). Yet when I look at most art hanging in museums – particularly art of the more modern, abstract genre – I often find myself staring blankly, almost paralyzed by a work I cannot comprehend. The openness of this form scares me – you could read ANYTHING into it, and I am an enormous fan of having the “right” answer.
So, I experienced some trepidation when John Westerhoff – a respected theologian who has been wrestling with how we minister to rising generations for decades now – began his keynote address at Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity by likening it to a Jackson Pollock painting. He told us that he was going to spend the next hour splattering some paint around, then we could look and see if we find art in it at the end. Great, I thought – right up my alley.
Westerhoff’s metaphor, however, unexpectedly provided me with the lens I needed to make meaning – both of a lecture that covered an overwhelmingly vast number of ideas, and a conference which splattered us with wide-flung possibilities. Visualizing scattered drips working together to create something worthy of contemplation and admiration helped me think afresh about my work with children in this time when our old, well-structured rules and patterns seem to need a revolution – or at least an evolution. Westerhoff called the time we are living in a “transition period” in the ages of Christian history – a time that comes along every few hundred years and lasts for a century or so, a time when everything is up for debate and everything has the possibility of being revisioned. Since this period began in the 1950s, well before my birth, transition is the only way of life I have ever known. Perhaps this is why I am always seeking to find order in things, trending towards art that creates a clear picture rather than that which leaves us to speculate.
Yet the very gift of transition periods, Westerhoff encouraged us, is the freedom they give us to wonder – to use our imagination to help craft a new age based on what was present or absent in the era before. As we move from the Age of Reason, where logic prevailed, into a new age of still amorphous form, intuition and the arts are being welcomed back into the life of faith as long-neglected partners. Amidst what Westerhoff called “an age of absolute loneliness” – loneliness often exacerbated by technology and social media rather than alleviated – we get a chance to reenvision intimacy in face-to-face community that we receive as a gift. Out of an era in which we’ve been separated by age and “functionality,” we get the chance to bring people back together – to ask what we can do in intergenerational community rather than sending the children away, what we can learn from our kids as much as what we can teach them. Rather than looking to a slate of programs intended to methodically indoctrinate, we get license to consider how every aspect of our life together – from the way we collect the offering to what we post on church bulletin boards – shapes our image of God and what it looks like to be a follower of Christ.
Westerhoff’s artful call to open ourselves to refreshed uses of language and to community that is fully mutual may sound, to some of us, like a call to look at random splotches on a canvas and somehow pronounce them a masterpiece. But as pioneers of a new age, as pilgrims traveling through a time of transition, this is our call as pastors, laity, and persons who care about the Kingdom of God: not to stick with our old faithful art forms but to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the wide-openness of this new day, to be creative yet intentional in how we imagine and think and speak the faith.
Westerhoff began his lecture by defining the role of Professor – the role he had filled for much of his career – as “one who professes what they believe in the moment in order to stimulate you to think for yourselves.” As much as such openness and fluidity unnerves me, this is precisely what the many professors gathered at CYNKC nurtured in me this week: permission to let the wheels of my mind whirl off the logical path, to splatter paint across the canvas I’ve been given, and see what kind of new art might leap forth for the Kingdom of God.
[Abby Thornton is pastor of Broadneck Baptist Church in Anapolis, MD. She writes youth Bible study curriculum for Gather ‘Round, a joint publication of the Mennonite Church and Church of the Brethren; and has written adult curriculum materials for Smyth and Helwys, Cokesbury, and the United Church of Christ. A number of participants are tweeting from the conference: the Twitter stream is #cynkc.]