Friday, November 14, 2014

Church architecture: An Exercise in Theological Discernment

Chapel of Saint Basil, Houston, TX

The following is an assignment which I've given to my class this week. Each student is required to write a 1,000-1,500-word evaluation of a specific work of church architecture. Since our class takes place in three different cities (LA, Houston and Colorado Springs), I've asked them to evaluate a Catholic church in their respective cities: The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, The Chapel of Saint Basel, and Saint Mary's Cathedral. Each represents a distinctive approach to church architecture; each captures a distinct Catholic sensibility.

As I mentioned in an email to the students, my hope is that this exercise will help them to be careful "readers" of spaces in general and of church architecture in particular. I encouraged them to attend a worship service if possible. If that was not possible, I asked them to sit in the space for a length of time, whether inside or outside the church itself, in order to get a "feel" for the space. I also encouraged them to enjoy this assignment.

Here, then, is the framework I asked students to work with as they completed their assignment, mindful that there was only so much that could be said in the given word-count:

1.    HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: In 250 words or so tell us something about the history of the space: how and when it was conceived, who the key players were, how much money it cost, where in the city it is set, anything significant about its setting, and perhaps any controversy around its construction or presence, and about the choice of name.

2.    ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN: In 250 words or so describe the primary features of the architectural design. Tell us something about the exterior and the interior shape. Tell us something about the materials used. Tell us if there is anything particularly noteworthy about this design. Please do not simply transcribe the official description that you find on the website. You may of course use some of what you find on the church website, but try to track down other information on the space or use your own words to describe it.

3.    CATHOLIC IDENTITY: In 250 words of so tell us what the stated intentions or purposes of this church architecture are. Tell us what key issues are at stake in these purposes. Tell us what key terms seem to pop up in official descriptions of it. What are the hopes and aims of the official leaders? What is this space intended to imitate in the history of Catholic church architecture (or not, as the case may be)? And who is this space intended to connect to especially, both internal to the congregation itself and to a broader audience (in LA or Houston or Colorado Springs)?

4.    THEOLOGICAL ISSUES: In 250+ words or so tell us what you think this choice of church architecture opens up for the people who gather there, theologically, relationally, spiritually, liturgically, missionally or otherwise? What possibilities does it close down or limit, again, theologically, relationally, spiritually, liturgically, missionally or otherwise?

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, CA

Saint Mary's Cathedral, Colorado Springs, CO

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Worship and the Arts: An Exercise in Theological Discernment

This is an exercise I had my students do in class a few weeks ago. The aim of the exercise was to get them to think critically and theologically about the role that the arts might play in corporate worship. Rather than me telling what was at stake, I wanted them to discover what was at stake for themselves, and to defend their choices as much as was possible under the constraints of time. A fifth category I could have added was context, that is, the space in which the act of confession was made and how people were related to each other in that space.

The exercise went so well, I thought, that I ended up replicating it this past week in service of a discussion of theology and the arts. As a fun anecdote, after the first time I had a student tell me that there were 2,401 possible combinations of a confession of sin under these premises. So much potential!

This is how it worked.

Aim of task: Your goal is to enable a congregation to confess their sins. This is the liturgical activity which the musical arts are intended to serve, enhance, deepen, clarify, enrich.

Task #1: Choose one from each category to create a combination of four distinct dynamics.

Task #2: What does your choice open up or close down for a congregation? What possibilities for the confession of sin does your choice open up--personally, relationally, spiritually, liturgically, theologically, missionally or otherwise? What possibilities does it close down? What limits does it place on the congregation in light of the broad range of models for confession of sin which we discover in Scripture and church history?


1. Prostrate
2. Bowing
3. Kneeling
4. Sitting
5. Standing
6. Hands raised
7. Dancing


1. Silent (which would include some kind of instrumental music playing in background)
2. Individually (quietly)
3. Small group
4. All together (praying the same words but perhaps not all at the same time)
5. In unison (praying the same words at the same time)
6. All at the same time (out loud "Korean style")
7. Choir (praying on behalf of the congregation)


1. A Cappella
2. Chant
3. Hymn (ballad)
4. Pop-Rock
5. Gospel/Spiritual
6. World/Global music
7. Jewish/Arabic


1. Personal text (something an individual has written him or herself)
2. Biblical text (from OT or NT)
3. Liturgical text (prescribed in a book of worship)
4. Foreign language (say, Latin or Spanish or Swahili)
5. “Popular” text (for example, something from U2 or Denise Levertov)
6. Litany text (a prescribed set of prayers)
7. Cantor-led (improvised by an individual singer)

Friday, October 10, 2014

A church artist internship

In the fall of 2001 I began an artist internship program at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas. Just this week a friend (Brie Tschoepe) asked me for information on what we had done and why. I realized I'd never posted anything on the program, so thought I should do so now. We ran the internship program (along with a kind of residency program) for five or six years. While it wasn't a perfect program, and while it wouldn't fit in all ecclesial contexts, I am glad we did it and I enjoyed getting to work with the artists that participated.

The Artist Internship at Hope Chapel

What it is

The art internship is a twelve-month program (September to September), which offers the artist an opportunity to serve the arts ministry at Hope Chapel as well as to explore his or her artistic calling.

The idea of the internship

The reasoning behind the art internship is twofold.  On the one hand, we want to provide a place for artists, whether amateur or professional, to ask basic but important questions such as:  Who am I as an artist?  What is my place in the church, in the world?  What kind of artist am I?  What is my potential?  What media are primary for me, which are secondary?  What are my strengths?  How do I integrate my art with my faith, my work, my relationships?  The internship is a season in which we will explore together answers to these questions.  On the other hand, the internship offers an opportunity for service to the arts ministry at Hope Chapel: to strengthen, to develop, to expand and to mature it.   The intern plays a critical role in the growth of the church’s ministry. 

Personal interest and service of the Church

At the outset of the internship, the intern determines in discussion with the Arts Pastor a course of personal study and work.  The goal of this exercise is to develop his or her artistic interests.  The intern is expected to draft a weekly and monthly schedule to keep them accountable to their goals.  In like manner, the intern decides with the Arts Pastor the most suitable course of service to the arts ministry. 


This can be worked one of two ways.  Either we provide room and board for the intern with a Hope Chapel family or the intern raises funds to match the equivalent of a monthly room and board.  With the latter we are happy to help the intern raise his or her support.  Funds should be pledged by no later than August 30, prior to the commencement of the internship.

Other Activities & Requirements


·       In the Fall, read My Name is Asher Lev and write a reflective essay in response.  In addition, read a book in the area of art and theology and write a reflective essay.
·       In the Spring, read a book of your choice in your field of interest and discuss with Arts Pastor.

  Writing projects

·       In addition to the above writing assignments, the intern is asked to write two more essays.  Over the course of the Spring, they are to write an essay with the provisional title, “In Defense of Non-Utilitarian Art.”  The purpose of this exercise is to encourage the intern to think about the nature of art: what it can and cannot do, what it ought or ought not to do, how context shapes our decisions about art-making, how both church and the culture at large influence our expectations about art.  The Arts Pastor will work with the intern to focus the assignment and to help make it as beneficial as possible to them.
·       At the conclusion of the internship, the intern is invited to write an essay reflecting on his or her experience throughout the year.

  The Art of Feasting

·       Once a month the intern will eat lunch with the other interns and residents along with the Arts Pastor.  This is done for the purposes of connecting as well as eating good food.
·       Once a month the intern will meet with the Arts Pastor (over coffee, tea or other beverage of choice) to touch base and to see how we’re doing.

  Participation in Community

·       Arts Council: the intern will be invited to sit on the monthly Arts Council meetings.  Included in this is participation in the bi-annual summer arts festival.
·       Prayer: the intern will join in the weekly prayer times on behalf of the artist community in Austin.
·       Community life: the intern commits to be engaged in some way with the artist community at Hope Chapel, developing intentional relationships, encouraging, supporting, and walking alongside others.  Beyond this, the internship affords an opportunity to get to know the Hope Chapel staff and in this way feel connected to the mission of the church.
·       Retreat: the interns and residents will begin the year with a retreat to acquaint, pray and play.  The intern will be encouraged to take periodic silent retreats during the year.  At the end of the year, the interns and residents along with the Arts Pastor will take a retreat to debrief and have fun.
·       End of the year presentation: we want to offer the intern an opportunity to give a final presentation of their work/year to the Arts Council and if desirable, to a larger group of people.

Practically now what:
Please submit an application with the following: 500 words identifying your artistic background (skills, experience, training), 500 words outlining your goals and expectations for the internships, and 500 words telling us anything else you’d like us to know about yourself.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Scents of a Place

There is something that my parents', grandparents', sisters' and best high school friend Nathan Sanford's house have in common: they each have a specific smell. And each in their own way produce a very powerful nostalgic feeling in me.

This past weekend I visited my grandparent's home for the last time. Their mid-twentieth century bungalow house sits on the edge of the SMU campus, directly across the street from a frat house, 3028 McFarlin Road. It's the home my mother grew up in. It's the home my sisters and I loved to visit after a five-day road trip up from the Guatemala City, during our years as missionary kids in the '70s and early '80s. It's the home that has been in the family for nearly seventy years. This autumn it will become the property of Southern Methodist University, and it will no longer bear the resemblance of my DeAcutis family.

It may, however, retain a certain sweet smell, barring a total demolition. As I walked into the home this past Saturday after a four-drive from Houston with Phaedra and Blythe, it was not the sight of anything that struck me first. It was the smell of the place, that singular, resolute smell that says "granddaddy and grandmother," that says, more to the point, a place on the earth that has afforded me and my sisters and mother and uncle and even my father a sense of meaning for almost two-thirds of a century. By the time 2015 rolls around, it will no longer be our place, the fact of which, in the quiet moments of my heart, causes me a deep sadness.

It has always struck me as curious that there is no easy way to keep the memory of a place through olfactory means.

You can write about it. You can take photographs, as I did this past weekend in order to take with me a remembrance of the details that constituted their home. You can record an audio tape in order to give an encomium of a place, so that the memory can be heard again and again. But there is no real way to bottle up the smell of a place. Even if you were to grab a few of your granddad's ties, as I did, and hope that they kept their scent, time will eventually erase his fragrance and replace it with my own. Those ties will retain the feel of their original home (i.e. my grandfather's person), yes, but not their smell, which seems such a shame.

Both Holy Scripture and plenty of anthropologists will tell you that humans have a (God-given) need to give a public record of a place so that it is not easily forgotten. We say in front of others what can be said, or what needs to be said, whether the good or the bad or the mundane, but we say it in order to find our footing in the world. It is, as always, the detail stuff that make a place a home, and a home a place in the earth: the candy-apple red bricks, the small stone-graveled driveway, the thin plastic bowls, the beaten leather footstool, the indoor mail slot, the door frame that measured our height as grandchildren, the closets that kept our Halloween costumes and granddad's Florsheim shoes and boxes of old photographs and seasons greetings cards, and the cabinet that kept our favorite sugary cereals, and the little kitschy trinkets that adorn the walls in haphazard ways.

No matter what they tell you, it is never easy to say goodbye, which is why I desperately craved a ritual this past weekend in order to make some sense of this final farewell. For now I'm afraid that a set of photographs will have to do.

Breakfast lamp.

Kitchen pencil with masking tape.

Bathroom door lock.

Bathroom heater.

 Bedroom clock.

Vanity lamp.

Air conditioner unit.


Office light.

Bathroom curtains.

Sign to bathroom.




Leather footstool.

Hour glass.

Front door.


Living room mail slot.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My fall course on worship, theology and the arts

Several folks have inquired about the course I'll be teaching this fall with my wonderful new employer, Fuller Theological Seminary, and I thought I'd jot down a few bits about it here. I'm co-teaching with Todd Johnson a core course, titled "WORSHIP, THEOLOGY, AND THE ARTS TOUCHSTONE." It's a required course for all students wishing to major or concentrate in this interdisciplinary field. I'll be teaching in Houston, while Todd teaches from Pasadena, and we'll have a third campus, in Colorado, video-linked to us as well. It'll be exciting business.

Here is the official course DESCRIPTION:

"This course is the introductory course for all students entering Worship, Theology, and the Arts (WTA) concentrations at the master’s level. This course introduces the students in the WTA concentration to the methodology that will undergird their theological study of Christian worship, along with narrative, performing, and plastic arts. Beginning with Augustine’s philosophy of language and learning as introduced and developed in De Magistro and De Doctrina Christiana, and his assertion that all we have to communicate with are signs, words, and gestures, this course will explore methods of exegeting signs and gestures to supplement the exegesis of words. The course will be divided into modules, each one focusing on the application of this method to Christian worship and two art forms. One module will also focus on the topic of the Brehm Lectures, which the students will be required to attend."

Our core TEXTS are the Jeremy Begbie edited, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts; Ben Edmonds, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On and the Last Days of the Motown Sound; Catherine Gunsalus Gonz├ílez, Resources in the Ancient Church for Today’s Worship; Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art; and Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe.

A sample of articles and essays that we'll have students read include:

- Peter King, “On the Impossibility of Teaching”
- Andrew Greeley, “The Sacraments of Sensibility”
- Barbara Nicolosi, "The Artist"
- Ivan Khovacs, “A Cautionary Note on the Use of Theater in Theology”
- Flannery O’Conner, “The Catholic Novelist and their Readers”
- Frederich Buechner, “The Gospel as Fairy Tale”
- Mary Charles Murray, “Image, Ear and Eye”
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing
- Jeremy Begbie, “The Future of Theology Amid the Arts”

Students will be required to listen to Marvin Gaye's album, "What's Going On," and offer a critical theological observations on The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (in LA) and the Chapel of Saint Basel (in Houston). They'll write a reflection paper on the observation of a ritual of Christian worship outside of their given tradition, and they'll be invited to interact with each other online all throughout the term.

It'll be a tremendous amount of fun, I have no doubt. If you're in the greater Houston area, which includes the Woodlands, Galveston, College Station, San Antonio and Baton Rouge (and, yes, beyond), and are interested in taking this course, I welcome you to contact the good folks at Fuller Texas.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Latifah Phillips to perform at 2015 Laity Lodge retreat: "The Emotional Life of Art & Artists"

I'm super thrilled to announce that Latifah Phillips, artist, producer, writer, will be performing at the 2015 Laity Lodge retreat for ministers to artists, "The Emotional Life of Art & Artists." I met Latifah at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship consultation this past May, a consultation that brought together musicians, worship leaders, theologians and producers to talk about pop-rock contemporary worship.

Latifah is down to earth, funny, self-effacing, and immensely talented. Her music served as the soundtrack to my transition from Durham to Houston by way of I-10 this summer. Here is a bit about her, and hopefully it inspires you to sign up for the conclusion of a three-part series which began with Jamie Smith (on the imagination) and Trevor Hart (on the physical body), and now ends with Jeremy Begbie (on the emotions).

To register for the retreat, please go here.

Latifah Phillips, is the lead singer of Page CXVI, The Autumn Film, Sola-Mi, and her most recent project Moda Spira. The last eight years she has primarily toured the country with Page CXVI, a band dedicated to re-imagining hymns. Over the last decade she has made fifteen records, nine for Page CXVI, for her bands in addition to several more as a producer for other artists. She is passionate about creating music with a sonic landscape that matches the profound, rich lyrics of hymnsI. She hails from Lafayette, CO where she spends her time in the studio when not on the road!

Monday, August 25, 2014

The emotional life of art and artists: part 2

"The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider's web."  ― Pablo Picasso

"Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."  ― T. S. Eliot

“I don't want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“One ought to hold on to one's heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.”Friedrich Nietzsche

The Laity Lodge has just posted a registration site for our retreat for ministers to artists in which we will be exploring the emotional life of art and artists. No small task there, to be sure. But it'll be great fun, hopefully also intellectually challenging, relationally encouraging, and practically and professionally helpful. From Facebook's secret research project to alter the emotional state of its users to the enduring aim of marketers to "make you cry" to the central role that the emotions are perceived to play in the work of artists (per the above quotes), it is hardly ever doubted that the emotions matter to human life.

More rarely, though, is there a clear-headed understanding of how they ought to function, what place they occupy in the economy of God, and how Christians in general and artists in particular should cultivate a faithful emotional life, and therefore also a faithful artistry in relation to the emotions. The objective of our retreat, "The Emotional Life of Art & Artists," which will involve Jeremy Begbie as our featured speaker, is to begin to move toward such a clear-headed understanding. Here is the short description that we have written for the event:

Much writing on the emotions today argues that the emotions don't happen in a vacuum. They relate to realities outside ourselves, whether personal or otherwise, and can be faithful or unfaithful to those realities. How can the arts help us respond to God in a way that is emotionally responsible?  That's the question Jeremy Begbie will be tackling, using music (recorded and performed) as his key art form, while David Taylor will be exploring the contours of an emotionally healthy artist. All of this, of course, will occur in the context of lively conversation, the sharing of meals, and the experience of beauty in the canyons of central Texas--no small contribution, we hope, to an emotionally rich experience.

To register for this retreat, go here. To see what we did last year, see here. The dates for the retreat are April 30 - May 3, 2015. And please do pass along this information to anybody you think might be interested in the topic. If you have never been to a Laity Lodge retreat, here are a video and a few photographs to entice you.

Laity Lodge Time lapse from Erik Newby on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

And a little child shall lead them ... quite impressively in fact

Between reviewing the proceedings from the Disputation at the Convent of Rive of 1535 and an essay by Barth on the "architectural problem of Protestant places of worship," I pause to watch this remarkable video by a child likely no older than our own Blythe.

A little child shall indeed lead them, in their own special way.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The flourishing of the liturgical arts on Calvinian terms

The barista at Starbucks just asked me what my dissertation is about. She's seen me sitting at the same little table for the past month, in my office away from my official office, and she was curious what kept me returning. I gave her my generic answer: "It's about theology and the arts." She smiled and said, in typical Starbuckian friendliness, "That sounds so interesting!" I figure if somebody really wants to know, they'll keep asking until I give them the real answer. It's a question my mother has asked me repeatedly, along with friends, colleagues, church people, and strangers. It's the right question to ask, though I still seem to stumble over the ten-second answer. What's your dissertation about, again? 

As I prepare to defend my thesis next Wednesday, I thought I'd drop here a small portion of my conclusion. It is the beginning of an answer to my project's original question: "Is it possible to argue for the flourishing of the liturgical arts on Calvinian terms?" My answer is yes. But, of course, that answer appears 390 pages after building and defending an argument in sympathy to, but also often against, Calvin's theology of worship.

God-willing, I'll defend my project successfully and eventually publish a book version of the dissertation. Until then, it's hip hip hooray for getting this far and for getting an opportunity to do it. (And, yes, the project works with John Calvin, not the other Calvin.)

The flourishing of the liturgical arts on Calvinian terms
The question that our project has left outstanding is this: How may the liturgical arts be said to flourish on Calvinian terms? For some, of course, it may be presumed that there is nothing interesting to discover in Calvin’s liturgical theology, so the answer to this question is moot. Others may feel that nothing more should be said. Calvin has already said everything that could be said about the liturgical arts in light of his biblical arguments or that his social location pre-determines the sorts of things that might have been said.  Still others may dismiss his views as theologically problematic (dualistic, pessimistic, platonic) and therefore inimical to a fruitful investigation of the arts in worship.

The wager of this dissertation is that there is in fact something interesting to discover in Calvin’s theology. Yet before we can discover what that is, we need to define what is meant by “flourishing.” Two senses can be suggested. The first sense of flourishing envisions an increase in the number, kind and uses of the arts in public worship. The second sense of flourishing points to the right conditions in which any kind of liturgical art, whether few or many, whether “high” or “low,” will effectively serve the purposes of public worship. In this conclusion, I focus on the second sense.

Hewing closely to Calvin’s explicit theological and exegetical concerns, the flourishing of the liturgical arts might look something like this: As products of human making, arising out of the stuff of creation, the arts flourish in a liturgical context if they are inextricably linked to Word and Spirit, promote order, exhibit beauty, render pious joy, and prompt the faithful to “lift their hearts” to God together, rather than remain entrapped in self-absorbed concerns, and “return” with God to earth, rather than remain unmoved by the ethical and missional realities which awaited them in the world at large.

While this represents one way to render Calvin’s liturgical vision, I wish to propose a more synthetic view that extends beyond what Calvin himself imagined but which remains faithful to his trinitiarian theology and to his fundamental vision for ecclesial life. I propose the following: that the liturgical arts flourish on Calvinian terms 1) when they are regarded as creaturely media that 2) participate in the work of the triune God to establish right worship for the church, and that 3) fittingly serve the activities and purposes of public worship.

The liturgical arts as creaturely media
While there is no such thing as a theologically neutral understanding of creation, I place this criterion first in order to follow the basic movement of the dissertation: from a consideration of the material creation in general to a consideration of materiality in the specific context of public worship. I argue that the liturgical arts should be seen chiefly as creaturely media, which possess a God-given integrity to be particularly “themselves,” through which the glory of the triune God is disclosed and expressed.

From Calvin’s perspective, creation represents the “hands and feet” of Christ and the abundant provision of God, which the human creature is invited to enjoy for both “useful” (practical and biological) and “non-useful” (aesthetic) reasons. In this view, creation is a place for something: for goodness, for discovery, for beauty, for vitality and fruitfulness, for action, for the worship of God, and for the mediation of God’s presence to humanity. Though sin vitiates humanity’s capacity to enjoy God in and through creation, sin does not rob creation of its capacity to stage a spectacle of God’s powers. And while it is only with the help of the Law, faith in Christ, and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit that the faithful are able to enjoy creation fully, for Calvin the faithful are in fact capable of discerning, and indeed of becoming ravished by, the glory of God through creation.

If the church’s praise, then, can be said to be ontologically inseparable from creation’s own praise, then I suggest that the purpose of the liturgical arts will not be to “get out of the way” but rather to serve the purposes of the liturgy on behalf of creation. The purpose of liturgical artists will be to offer “articulate” voice to creation’s praise, while never seeking to replace creation’s own praise. Their work will be to welcome the familiar and strange voice of creation into the liturgical sphere in response to the familiar and strange voice of God.

Calvin rightly stresses that the triune God has distinguished an innumerable variety of things in creation and has “endowed each kind with its own nature, assigned functions, appointed places and stations.” This is another way of saying that God has endowed the things of creation with their own integrity that demands careful, respectful and loving attention. One task for liturgical artists, on this view, would be to understand the logics and powers of the material stuff of creation. This would involve asking how color, stone, wood, metal, fabric, glass, wind “work.”

If a combination of empirical and sanctified sight afford the faithful right understanding of creation, as Calvin believes, what then might we observe about the dynamics of creation: its patterns and spontaneity, its simplicity and extravagance, its order and non-order, its spare and ornate quality? Liturgical artists would also want to pay close attention to how human bodies work—how they relate to both material and social environments, how they connect to mind and emotions, how they acquire a “feel for the game” in a liturgical context. They would further want to discern carefully how spaces and dwellings work? How do they “learn” its inhabitants over time and thereby form a habitus?

If the liturgical arts function as a vehicle of God’s glory through creation, however, it is only because the triune God enables creation to be fit for such a task. The liturgical arts are capax Dei: capacitated by God to serve the praise of God on earth as it is in heaven.