Category Archives: Art

Artists in the Nursery

Cross-posted from David Taylor’s Diary of an Arts Pastor blog: the original post can be found here. And thanks to Sonya Ewing for the beautiful pictures of some of our nursery crowd: check out more of her work here. Thanks, David and Sonya!


I should probably confess my bias at the outset: I love kids. I’ve loved kids from a very early age. As a kid myself, I loved babies. When I left childhood, I realized that I would always love kids and I would definitely want to have some of my own. As early as elementary school I told my mother that I couldn’t wait to be a dad. Somewhere around junior high, my sisters and I vowed, with no small amount of chutzpah over against Providence, that we would each produce four children. This, in part, was a way to address the certainty that the Almighty had unjustly dealt us only one first cousin, whom we barely knew. Our children would not suffer the same fate.

In late high school, my plan was to get married in my early twenties, then to start having babies by twenty-five. It was a perfect age to bring little people into the world, I thought. You’re strong, you’re handsome, you’ve got a good job on hand, you’re married to the wife of your seventeen-year-old-self dreams, and it’s a nice-sounding number. As it turned out, in a reversal of providential fortune, I married just shy of thirty-six, passably fit, with a beard turning white, on my way out of a secure job, wedding the woman my seventeen-year-old-self didn’t know I needed but God did, and thank heavens for that.

By God’s grace, I saw my first baby at thirty-nine.

While very little of my life has turned out according to plan, and as an INTJer I am hopelessly obsessed, I confess, with ten, twenty and thirty-year plans, and while I’ve had to figure out what to do with an extraordinary amount of emotional grief along the way, most of which I’ve had no real clue how to share with others, I take hope in the lot of Charles Wesley and William Wilberforce. Both eighteenth-century gentlemen married late (Charles at 42, William at 37), both brought a considerable number of children into the world (Charles’ first of eight at age 45, William’s first of six at age 39; though tragically only three of Wesley’s children survived death). There is still hope for me to complete my end of the sibling deal, made nearly three decades ago.

While I wait for God to give us more children (and, ahem, do my part, accordingly), I enjoy the children God already has given me. For fifteen years I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my sisters’ children, four of Christine’s, two of Stephanie’s. They are a complete delight to me. I also enjoy pretty much anybody else’s kids, which is why I had the time of my life during my first stint of service in our church nursery yesterday.

As I mentioned on Facebook, while half the 1 and 2 year-olds regarded my beard warily, the other half used plastic farm and kitchen utensils to comb it. I’m not exactly sure why that made me so happy, but it did. It was kids being kids, and my beard being put to good use.

My three most frequently used phrases all morning long were:

1. “It’s ok, it’s ok.” (to soothe frayed little people nerves)

2. “Please be gentle.” (to encourage less semi-savage behavior as some of the more enthusiastic kids made a grab for another child’s toy)

3. “Excellent tea!” (as we celebrated our never-ending tea party)

One of my favorite parts of the morning was leading the children in a rousing version of “The Wheels on the Bus,” as they gnawed their Cheez-It and cookie snack. I could have done that nonstop.

A few years back, at a conference I had organized in Austin, Texas, for artists, pastors, theologians and educators, a mild argument broke out between a panelist on stage and a member of the audience around the question of an artist’s responsibilities to the church. Long story short, the issue of whether artists should volunteer in the nursery came up. One person argued strongly against it, the other person bravely argued for it. The former maintained that artists should be allowed to serve the church otherwise, mainly by letting them do what they do best: make art. The latter insisted that artists might in fact produce better work, or at least become better human beings, if they spent more time serving “regular” folks in a local congregation. They might also learn a thing or two, even if indirectly, about good art from babies and toddlers. Or they might just learn humility, which is a reasonably good condition in which to make great art.

To put my cards on the table, I’m with the latter. I think serving in the nursery does wonders for your character, and not necessarily in an onerous way. They’re fun. They’re cute. They cry and laugh in the span of ten seconds. They’re curious. They don’t care about the things that often make us feel insecure—what school we went to or didn’t, what our family lineage is or isn’t, how impressive we are or are not, or what phone numbers are stored in our smart phone. They’re present to you with a guileless immediacy, unless a cool Tonka truck suddenly steals them away. They’re sweet kids. And there is always somebody else in the room who can change a poopy diaper if you’re not ready for that kind of scatological fellowship.

It’s also an incredible way to love their parents, or grandparents, or foster parents, or adopted parents.

While it’s a change of pace from the life that I live Monday to Friday, on the fourth floor of the Perkins library at Duke University, as I plow away on my dissertation, it’s a welcomed change. And while I realize that not everybody is in a season of life or in a condition where nursery service is viable, I do think these wee ones deserve the best. Whether it’ll enhance my dissertation-writing powers, time will tell (ditto for my artmaking powers). Whether I am the best or not for the task, I can take comfort that my beard will somehow prove useful: either as a stress reliever for a crying child or a pretend arable field for an imaginary farmer.

I love kids and I’m looking forward to my next turn. But you probably knew that from the outset.




If you have a beard…or a song…or just a willing heart to share with our church’s youngest members once a month on Sunday morning, we’d love to have you join our team! Contact Daniele Berman ( to find out how to get involved!

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Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an
instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life:
Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly
suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior
Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Georges Rouault -Crucifixion

Georges Rouault -Crucifixion

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Collect for Monday of Holy Week

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.


Jean Marchand Woodcut - LAYING JESUS IN THE TOMB

Jean Marchand Woodcut – LAYING JESUS IN THE TOMB

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The Feast of St. John

This sonnet and short introduction is written by Malcolm Guite who is a poet that I follow online. I have shared his work with the church before. He has written many sonnets inspired by his life in Christ that help the church enter into the depth and beauty of their faith following the church calendar. Today is the feast of St. John.

A Sonnet for the Feast of St. John

Because it soars upward, the eagle is a symbol of the resurrection or ascension of Christ. By extension, the eagle symbolizes baptized Christians, who have symbolically died and risen with Christ.Especially when the eagle has a halo (as in the image above), it is the symbol of John the Evangelist. The eagle represents John because of his lofty and "soaring" gospel (it is much more theological in nature than the other three). All four gospels have a mascot associated with them.

Because it soars upward, the eagle is a symbol of the resurrection or ascension of Christ. By extension, the eagle symbolizes baptized Christians, who have symbolically died and risen with Christ.
Especially when the eagle has a halo (as in the image above), it is the symbol of John the Evangelist. The eagle represents John because of his lofty and “soaring” gospel (it is much more theological in nature than the other three). All four gospels have a mascot associated with them.

On the third day of Christmas falls the feast of St. John the Evangelist, and it is fitting that the Gospel writer whose prologue goes so deeply into the mystery of Incarnation, and whose words ‘The Word was made flesh’ are read at every Christmas Eucharist, should have his feast-day within the twelve days of Christmas.

In my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons I have gathered my sonnets for the four Evangelists into one sequence at the beginning. But here in its proper place in the liturgical year is my sonnet for St. John, the evangelist whose emblem is the Eagle. (for an account of the four emblems see here. I love John’s Gospel and you an hear the five talks I gave on Logos, Light, Life, Love and Glory in John’s Gospel via links on this page.)

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.


This is the gospel of the primal light,

The first beginning, and the fruitful end,

The soaring glory of an eagle’s flight,

The quiet touch of a beloved friend.

This is the gospel of our transformation,

Water to wine and grain to living bread,

Blindness to sight and sorrow to elation,

And Lazarus himself back from the dead!

This is the gospel of all inner meaning,

The heart of heaven opened to the earth,

A gentle friend on Jesus’ bosom leaning,

And Nicodemus offered a new birth.

No need to search the heavens high above,

Come close with John, and feel the pulse of Love.

Malcolm Guite is a poet and singer-songwriter living in Cambridge. He is a priest, chaplain, teacher and author.

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All Hallow’s Eve; A Sonnet of reclamation

I am reposting from Malcolm Guite’s blog which I follow thanks to David Taylor. Click here to visit.

All Hallow’s Eve; A Sonnet of reclamation  

The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed


Even here in England, where the tradition is less strong, Hallowe’en seems to be creeping up on Christmas in the crass comercialism stakes! Halloween itself simply means the eve of all Hallows, and All Hallows is the Christian feast of All Souls, the day we remember all the souls who have gone before us into the light of Heaven. It is followed immediately on November 2nd by All Saints Day a day when we think particularly of those souls in bliss who, even in this life, kindled a light for us, or to speak more exactly, reflected for us and to us, the already-kindled light of Christ! It is good that we should have a season of the year for remembrance and a time when we feel that the veil between time and eternity is thin and we can sense that greater and wider communion of saints to which we belong. It is also good and right that the Church settled this feast on a time in the turning of the year when the pre-Christian Celtic religions were accustomed to think of and make offerings for the dead. But it was right that, though they kept the day, they changed the custom. The greatest and only offering, to redeem both the living and the dead, has been made by Christ and if we want to celebrate our loving connections we need only now make gifts to the living, as we do in offering sweets to the ‘trick or treaters’ in this season, and far more profoundly in exchanging gifts at Christmas.

Anyway given that both these seasons of hospitality and exchange have been so wrenched from their first purpose in order to sell tinsel and sweeties, I thought I might redress the balance a little and reclaim this season with a sonnet for All Souls/All Saints that remembers the light that shines in darkness, who first kindled it, and how we can all reflect it.

I am posting this sonnet now as some churches who keep the feast a little earlier, on this coming Sunday, the 28th, may wish to make use of sonnet. Do feel free to print the words or use the recording.

The image which follows this poem, and takes up one of its key lines, is byMargot Krebs Neale. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.

All these sonnets are being published together this December by Canterbury Press in a book called Sounding the Seasons, which will be launched at St. Edward’s Church Cambridge on December 5th at 7:30pm.


All Saints

Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards

Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,

It glances from the eyes, kindles the words

Of all his unknown saints. The dark is bright

With quiet lives and steady lights undimmed,

The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed.

Plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing

He weaves them with us in the web of being

They stand beside us even as we grieve,

The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,

Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above

The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,

To triumph where all saints are known and named;

The gathered glories of His wounded love.

‘Each shard still shines’ image by Margot Krebs Neale


About malcolm guite

Malcolm Guite is a poet and singer-songwriter living in Cambridge. He is a priest, chaplain, teacher and author of various essays and articles and a book about contemporary Christianity. He also plays in Cambridge rock band Mystery Train, and lectures widely in England and USA on poetry and theology.


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Pentecost Sunday!

Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts 2:2-4

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire,air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

A Sonnet by Malcolm Guite

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,
“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”’
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

(Acts 2:1-41 ESV)

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He is Alive!

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves

And now he blesses hers who stood and wept

And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s

Last touching place, but watched as low light crept

Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs

A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.

She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,

Or recognise the Gardener standing there.

She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,

Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light

That brightens as she chokes out her reply

‘They took my love away, my day is night’

And then she hears her name, she hears Love say

The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

by Malcolm Guite

Almighty God, who for our redemption gave your only begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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A Sonnet for Maundy Thursday

Here is the source of every sacrament,

The all-transforming presence of the Lord,

Replenishing our every element

Remaking us in his creative Word.

For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,

The air delights to bear his Spirit’s speech,

The fire dances where the candles shine,

The waters cleanse us with His gentle touch.

And here He shows the full extent of love

To us whose love is always incomplete,

In vain we search the heavens high above,

The God of love is kneeling at our feet.

Though we betray Him, though it is the night.

He meets us here and loves us into light.

by Malcolm Guite

to listen to the author read this poem click HERE

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Jeremy Begbie: What can we learn about the gospel from music?

The important question when engaging culture is not, “Do I like this?” but rather, “What’s going on here?” said Jeremy Begbie, the Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology and director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts at Duke Divinity School.

By engaging works of art in this way, Christians can learn about the Holy Spirit, about the culture around them, and about other people, he said.

Begbie, a systematic theologian who trained as a concert pianist, specializes in multimedia performance-lectures which demonstrate the interplay between theology and the arts.

He is ordained in the Church of England and in addition to serving on the Duke Divinity faculty is a senior member of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and an affiliated lecturer in the faculties of divinity and music at the University of Cambridge.

Previously he has been associate principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and honorary professor at the University of St. Andrews, where he directed the research project Theology Through the Arts at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts.

Begbie is the author of a number of books about theology, music and the arts, including “Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music,” which won a 2008 Christianity Today Book Award.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke’s 2011Convocation & Pastors’ School to deliver the Gray Lecture. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Is there any particular music you recommend for Christians?

Sometimes I’m asked in classes, “What kind of music do you like?” And I refuse to answer. The reason I refuse to answer is because it’s assumed that that’s the most important thing you could ever ask about music: “Do I like it?”

I think Christians need to learn — if they’re really interested in engaging culture, they need to learn to ask a subtler question, which is: “What’s going on here?”

Why is this person doing this writing, performing, whatever? Why are people buying this, listening to it, whatever? What’s happening when they consume this music?

And then I think one learns a lot more. You learn a lot more about other people. We learn much more about the culture that we’re living in. And so I’m often recommending music that I know will be a bit of a stretch to perhaps the group I’m with, and they’ll recommend music to me that might be a stretch for me, but I think we’ll both just learn a good deal more and expand as Christians a little bit more.

Some examples: I’m a great fan of the Scottish Roman Catholic composer James MacMillan. James MacMillan is a — that’s tough music. It’s not the toughest contemporary music, but you wouldn’t have it with the shower on, you wouldn’t have it as background music. It has to be listened to, but when you do — I’ve known people who have no classical training and who would never think of going to a classical concert being totally mesmerized by this music and feel that they learned something as Christians about the Christian faith in the process.

That I would like to see going on more. A student in a class the other day played a song by Sufjan Stevens. I can’t remember which one it was, but it was about a serious topic. I thought it was banal given the serious topic.

It turned out a lot of the class, particularly those of a certain age group, in their 20s and early 30s, were deeply moved by this and thought that it was completely appropriate to those lyrics.

So I had to do a bit of thinking on that instead of just swipe that aside. I said … , “What’s going on here? Why do you hear profundity or at least music that’s appropriate to those words where I only hear trivialization? Because it sounds almost facetious, that sound, considering the profundity of the words.”

That’s an example of a two-way learning process where we need to challenge each other on Christian terms, to say, “Christianly, what can we learn about the gospel or the Christian worldview from this music?”

That’s the key question to ask, I think. Not instantly, “Do I like it or not like it?” — because until we ask the first question, actually, you’re just not going to like it, but then we might be missing out on something fantastic.

Q: How do you learn to listen with the question, “How can I learn about the Holy Spirit through this music?” How would you train someone to hear the answer to that question?

Say with a composer like Bach, I would say, “Let’s listen to his music, and I’ll tell you a little bit about how it’s constructed, and then let’s listen again.”

Very often, depending on the music, you’ll say, “This is beautifully ordered music. It doesn’t sound chaotic, but it also sounds like he’s having a lot of fun. It sounds open, abundant, unpredictable. Hmm.”

Then I would try to ease from that into the Christian worldview, which sees the world as ordered and yet the Holy Spirit as the one who brings abundance, surprise, novelty, unpredictability, in the midst of and out of the order that’s in the world.

That’s the way I would go, and then I would actually say that I think that’s — Bach himself wouldn’t say, “I composed with precisely that in mind,” but he turns out vast quantities of music that effectively are doing just that. So that music, to me, can speak of a worldview that takes the Holy Spirit seriously.

That’s the sort of way I would do that. And that takes a bit of time, and you’ve got to invite people to hear it in a certain way, but that’s all right. We’re always inviting people to hear things in certain ways. That’s fine.

Q: So what music do you listen to for enjoyment?

I listen to all sorts of music. There’s very little music I don’t listen to.

I have my favorites, I suppose. I love Bach, I like a lot of 19th-century music. I like particular singers. I think Michael Bublé is a fantastic artist; his voice is extraordinary. Sufjan Stevens is a very gifted songwriter.

But among the classics, I listen to most things and gain a great deal from them. There’s very little music I really can’t stand. Very little.

Q: Do you listen to pop music?

To a certain extent, yes. I find the sort of song that you’d find on American Idol fairly dull. I think jazz is more interesting generally. But there is some interesting pop. I think a lot of U2’s music is impressive.

But as far as, say, the 20 or top 50 songs are concerned, it’s not that I find this music offensive; I just find it less and less interesting now than I used to.

Q: Does it matter if the art is good or not, or is the experience enough? What if someone loves and is inspired by the paintings of Thomas Kincade or heavy metal music, or whatever? Does it matter?

I believe that artistic — let’s call it artistic quality for the moment — matters. That’s a very hard thing to define, but it would include something like unity and diversity, subtlety, different levels of meaning, the ability to generate fresh meaning in the experience each time you hear it, look at it, or whatever.

I do believe that if there’s a hymn used in a church, it matters that it’s artistically good, and I believe that because I think God calls us to be creative agents who can do subtle and complex things as well as basic and direct things.

Now, having said that, I want to say there is a time and a place to be very direct and not subtle or complex. So I can say to my wife, “I love you.” It’s not subtle. And at times I just need to say that. Indeed, in any marriage, if you don’t you’re in trouble. But there’s a time to send her a Shakespeare sonnet. There’s a time to play a Chopin nocturne. There’s a time to use a Michael Bublé song. These are subtler. They bear repeated listening. They will yield more and more with each hearing, and I think you can show they have objective qualities that make this possible.

In worship, I think there is a place for the unadorned love song, so I will defend even the simplest contemporary worship song, because I think within the spectrum of Christian worship it has a place and is needed. But there’s also a place for a Palestrina anthem, a place for Brahms, and a place for Messiaen.

Q: I’ve read that you describe yourself as a systematic theologian and not an “arts theologian.” What’s the distinction?

I see myself primarily as a theologian in the arts rather than an artist or musician that happens to dabble in a bit of theology. So I’m concerned with exploring and expounding the riches of the Christian faith, and doing so especially in the world of music or painting or sculpture or whatever. I’m trying to bring a rigor of Christian thought to the arts.

Q: In your career you cross a lot of boundaries — theology, arts, academic, performance, verbal, non-verbal. Do you see value in that border crossing and interdisciplinarity in and of itself?

I’m a great believer in interdisciplinarity. For as long as I can remember, even as a child, I was always looking for connections between things.

I suppose that’s grounded in a deeper conviction about the coherence of the world — that truth is ultimately one, that we’re not living in a totally chaotic world. It’s a world with distinctions and plurality and variety and diversity of parts, but it’s not a random world, flying apart.

And because God has made this world with a coherence and an order, everything will be connected in some way at some level. And I think interdisciplinarity is acknowledging that.

So we need to work at it. There will be connections. And you can’t tell what these connections will be in advance, and that’s what makes interdisciplinary work so exhausting!

Q: Becoming a Christian changed the course of your life — you became a theologian instead of a professional musician. Did it also change the way you play music?

Well, I think I’m less of a perfectionist than I used to be. When you’re trained to be a concert pianist, you’re trained rigorously never to go wrong, and to play a piece so brilliantly it can’t go wrong. You have to be a perfectionist. You simply have to be.

I think being a Christian has helped me lose a bit of that — not that I would want to be sloppy, but I’m much more aware of a cushion of forgiveness, so to speak, around what I do.

Also, before I was a Christian, music was a kind of religion. Since becoming Christian, I don’t have to invest music with divine qualities. I don’t have to make it into a kind of god and worship it. I am free to enjoy music much more because it doesn’t have to do everything for me.

In fact, I often think there’s too much music in worship. And I can go for days without music, and I’m OK.

Q: I’m surprised to hear you say there’s too much music in worship.

In English cathedrals, there’s a fear that if you’re in a service and someone needs to walk across the nave to take a book from one place to another, suddenly the organist has to start up to “cover” him, because he won’t make it to the other side without music. There’s this feeling you have to have music with everything. I go into restaurants and stores, and I’m surrounded by music. Music becomes a kind of aural lubricant.

The trouble with this, as well as taking music for granted, is that it means we forget the value of silence and quiet, stillness, waiting. When you do without music for a bit, you learn to value silence much more, and that’s no bad thing in today’s society.

Q: Why can music tell us about the value of silence?

A lot of music includes silence as part of its story, as part of its meaning.

Western music works largely by building up tensions and resolving them. The composer sets up a set of chords or rhythms or whatever, and you are made to expect certain events after that which resolve the tension.

You can feel these tensions even in silence. Then the silence is not empty. It feels full. I think that’s a great metaphor for learning to wait on God when there doesn’t seem to be any music around — in other words, when God doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Music can remind us that when nothing seems to be happening, God is still at work, that his promises still stand. The final resolutions of God’s promises are still to come, and we need to sense that, even when nothing seems to be going on.

Q: Does environment make a difference to the way we hear music?

A lot of music theory these days stresses that we always hear music in a context. That is to say, what a piece of music means for you, its significance, will depend on all sorts of things — the time of day, other people we hear it with, what we look at when you hear it, as well as a whole raft of cultural conventions and expectations.

And I think musicians — certainly, music theorists and those who reflect on the nature of music — are more than ever aware of those contextual factors today.

The idea of the disembodied listener, supposedly unaffected by context — that’s seen as a pretty old-fashioned idea. We’re much more aware of our physical, cultural and social embeddedness than before.

Q: Despite the fact that you’re not now a full-time concert pianist, I understand that you meticulously prepare for performance and preaching. Does that ever hinder spontaneity or improvisation?

I prepare very thoroughly for any public performance or lecture. But when I’m out there doing the job I usually improvise a fair amount, according to the audience and the occasion. I can only be spontaneous if I’ve prepared thoroughly. Preparation gives me the secure framework with which to improvise.

If I don’t prepare well, when it comes to the performance, then (as a tennis player might say) I “choke,” I don’t feel free.

I find the same with preaching. I usually write every word out, but in the pulpit I find I improvise a fair amount. Good preparation enables spontaneity.

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Two All Saints Musicians Featured this Month in Durham Concert

All Saints Church members Ehsan Samei and Amy Kortus  (members of performed in a recent musical event at Duke University.

Take a listen!

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Filed under Art, In the News, Music