When we take a look at our school and ask what the use of a liberal arts education is, the answer we come to should be “wholeness”, the idea that no matter our vocation or field of study, we are able to understand and interact with all of God’s creation. It is exactly this idea that is behind the Trinity SAMC department’s annual Verge Conference, a place where scholars and artists come together to explore the arts and their place within the Christian life. The beauty of the conference is that it is not just artists speaking to artists. Rather, it is people from totally different fields meeting together to dig into what is shared between us. It is exactly what the liberal arts was intended to enable from its beginning.
For this latest Verge conference, Trinity’s campus was visited by theologians, authors, scientists and others who were all seeking to uncover the role that narrative plays within our lives. Each speaker brought forth a new perspective on what it means to be human and how a correct understanding of narrative can move us a little farther along the road to true knowledge. What follows are a few short synopses of some of the talks given and the ideas shared. Enjoy.
Singing with Sophia: The Theological Imagination of Thomas Merton
Leah Cameron gave an absolutely wonderful lecture on Thomas Merton, the 20th century author who wrote No Man is an Island and the incredibly popular auto-biography The Seven Storey Mountain. Within her talk, Leah focused upon Merton’s conception of the relationship between man, wisdom, and God.
Central to understanding this relationship, she said, is the idea that fallen man is characterized by two personas: the false self which is ensnared by its own ego, and the true self that is found in the light of the divine. When we embrace this true self, we fully recover and embrace imago dei, the image of God in man. In order to do this, Leah said, we must encounter divine wisdom, that ultimate virtue personified in the name Sophia.
Merton believed that art is something within the material world that holds onto the spiritual, and it is wisdom that allows us to see this transcendence. If we see humanity as the greatest piece of art, that object of materiality in which He has placed the greatest piece of Himself, than it is only by encountering wisdom that we can fully recognize the imago dei. We must enter into a divine romance with this Sophia if we are to truly appreciate God’s creation.
The Realism of Distances
Gregory Wolfe, author of Beauty Will Save the World, writer in residence at Seattle Pacific University, and founder and editor of IMAGE magazine presented a very insightful article on the state of narrative. Wolfe explained how the current crisis of postmodern narrative has to do—surprise, surprise—with postmodernity.
Wolfe explains that the postmodern instinct is to throw out all meta-narratives and to focus solely upon individual story lines. They create a narrative foreground without a background. This is dangerous, Wolfe explains, because it allows people the opportunity to “retreat into private worlds that do not have a larger social, philosophical, or political connection with one another.”
He references Santiego Ramos’ belief that postmodern narratives are only really offering us “characters who learn to cope without a centre, in a world that has no freedom.” The postmodern view is an attempt to deconstruct “mastered narratives,” such as the Judeo-Christian biblical story. The removal of meta-narratives is intended to give a character freedom, and yet it actually does the opposite, removing any goal from that person’s story other than that of coping with life’s obstacles.
The highlight from Wolfe’s presentation is in his reminder that we are all characters within a grand story, and that we need to check our narrative centre from time to time. The postmodern perspective rules out a central focus: Christ. Wolfe shows us that without a dependable centre, without Christ, we end up wandering pointlessly, living for nothing but to try and cope with life’s struggles.
Relational Aesthetics and Re-Narrativization - Telling Stories in an Age of Post-Production
Brett David Potter started off the conference with a presentation on the history of appropriation and its affect on narrative. He says that we must begin to see appropriation (the artistic use of pre-existing objects or images) in light of improvisation. To create anything, you must be inspired by something; an idea, an image, a sound, etc. That notion must come from somewhere. So when you are inspired by something in the external world, he asks, are you simply appropriating that idea, or are you improvising upon it in order to add to the existing conversation?
Potter made the point that because of digital advancements, everyone is an artist. With a few thousand more words I could perhaps give that statement its due treatment, but for now let me build off it by asking: how do we tell our narratives? Potter debunks the notion of the secluded genius artist in favour of communal and public art.
Art is now a network of improvised stories and a ‘collective elaboration of meaning’. We all want our narratives to have meaning-making elements in them, even within the context of postproduction. The question we must then ask ourselves is this: Does this new vision of appropriation and artistic community add meaning to our work, or take it away?